One of the many things we have learned from movies is that the lives of international smugglers/assassins/criminals are impossibly classy and wonderfully posh (James Bond is certainly the ur-example, although the tradition carries on through John Wick, et al). But the world of international criminality is probably more accurate to what we see in Matthew Ross’ Siberia, a casually paced romantic thriller set largely in the sparsely populated Russian region of the title; that is: The life of a diamond smuggler is probably very slow and very boring and involves a lot of waiting, alone and drunk, in remote motel rooms.
In Siberia, Keanu Reeves plays a 51-year-old diamond smuggler named Lucas Hill who, at the film’s outset, must ask a dangerous client (Pasha D. Lychnikoff) for an extension on their deal. The blue diamonds he promised to sell are still in the hands of a missing compatriot named Pyotr, and Lucas has 48 hours to track Pyotr down in Siberia.
The bulk of the film’s action takes place in Siberia where, well, not a lot happens. It’s cold, there’s not a lot of night life, and Lucas spends a lot of time in a local diner drinking vodka and flirting with the comely and hard-minded young proprietress Katya (Ana Ularu from the short-live Tarsem series Emerald City). Lucas also bonds with the locals by going bear hunting, and has a few drunken Skype calls with his little-glimpsed wife (Molly Ringwald) back in America.
While other, more intensely action-driven films would focus on Lucas’ quest to find smuggled diamonds – the phone calls, the chases, the uncovering of secrets – Siberia focuses more on the relationship between Katya and Lucas. They are both bored with their lives, they have very little to do in Siberia, and their lives of solitude have hardened them both. They bond over their mutual attraction and mutual apathy over their lives of sameness. When they begin to have a hastily considered (and very steamy) affair, it comes as a welcome relief to them both. And, yes, they both acknowledge that he is married, and that she is a good 20 years his junior.
Their doomed romance is a fascinating look at the way mutual adult desperation can lead to minor social infractions with disastrous consequences: Katya and Lucas want to run away together, but that means working their way through the disgusting pit of criminality that Lucas lives in. Katya, for instance, will most certainly not enjoy attending the parties of bloviating Russian gangsters. If one has seen Matthew Ross’ rather excellent 2016 film Frank & Lola (with Michael Shannon and Imogen Poots), one will see many parallels; both are about aging, cold-hearted professional men and resolute (and equally cold) younger women who are both bored with their lot and location, and who find new life – but ultimately ruin – in the arms and beds of one another. But whereas Frank & Lola was more about the psychology of jealousy and the petty realities of Frank’s supra-male need to dominate, Siberia is merely about apathy and tedium in the criminal world. Siberia is certainly the lesser of the two.
As Siberia is a film about a diamond smuggler, I suppose it must inevitably end with a gunfight, although the road to get there is not the thrilling rocket ride one might expect. Siberia is indifferent and relaxed, almost languid, in its action. It broods in depressive corners of the criminal world rather than blowing holes through it. The film’s dark romance is so intense that the plot – which takes up the final third of the film – feels almost like an unwanted interruption. The plot, weirdly, is where Siberia seems to lose focus. Lucas and especially Katya are characters deserving of a more personal drama than this.