A foreboding variation on a quote by Tennessee Williams casts a shadow over the crackerjack new thriller "Transsiberian." Williams said that if he got rid of his demons, he would lose his angels.
In "Transsiberian" the characters' angels and demons head for a showdown on an extended train journey in a twisty plot reminiscent of vintage Hitchcock, with a jarring dose of modern violence tossed in. Viewers longing for an old-school film about train-bound mayhem will be more than pleased with this accomplished nail-biter.
In a prologue set in Vladivostok, Russian narcotics detective Grinko is investigating the knife-in-the-head murder of a drug dealer. Not only is there a dead body, but a ton of money and heroin is missing.
This makes Grinko, portrayed by Ben Kingsley with his patented scary intensity, very unhappy. We do not want Ben Kingsley to be unhappy. With an arched eyebrow and focused stare that could freeze a man, Grinko vows to ferret out the "mules."
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
Meanwhile Roy, a surprisingly good Woody Harrelson, and his wife Jessie, an equally fine Emily Mortimer, are young church folk heading home from a humanitarian mission in Beijing.
Hopping aboard the Trans-Siberian express, eternal nebbish optimist Roy, a choo-choo fanatic, jubilantly anticipates his train ride, even though since the fall of the Soviet Union, the train has become nothing more than a shabby Greyhound on rails.
Jessie, however, is a different beast entirely. Once a bad girl, she has settled for Roy, but there's a brooding quality to her that he dismisses with his cockeyed cheerfulness. Smiling through a crowded train of surly foreigners, Roy and Jessie are fish out of water who are soon to be hooked.
The hook comes in the form of two passengers who board the train and wind up sharing Roy and Jessie's compartment. A couple who supposedly have been teaching English in China, they are welcomed with open arms by naive Roy, while Jessie is hesitant.
Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) is a seductive Euro-hunk who immediately starts to work his swarthy magic on Jessie, while his much younger companion Abby (Avril Lavigne look-alike Kate Mara) is introverted and sullen. Eventually Jessie warms to the pair, particularly to, ahem, Carlos. Roy and Carlos become best buds, and Abby even warms to Jessie. Just two happy-go-lucky dysfunctional couples on holiday.
The plot thickens when Carlos shows Jessie his stash of Russian nesting dolls that he smuggled through customs. You'll never guess what they're made of. When Roy goes trainspotting at a stop and misses the train, Jessie is left alone with Carlos and Abby to wait for Roy's return.
In the interim, Carlos persuades Jessie to take a little excursion into the woods. It doesn't go so well. To say much more would spoil the fun to be had as the dread and suspense mount to a level 10 white-knuckle ride, particularly when Grinko becomes Roy and Jessie's new traveling companion.
Did I mention that Carlos has stashed the dolls in Jessie's luggage? When Grinko says that "the thing about a lie is you can only go forward, but never go back," you want to confess every bad thing you've done since you learned to crawl.
Writer and director Brad Anderson, a TV veteran of such shows as "The Wire" and "The Shield" and helmer of the underrated "The Machinist," infuses "Transsiberian" with an old-fashioned sensibility rarely seen in modern thrillers.
Go for the ruminations on conscience and morality and a healthy dose of eroticism, but don't forget to enjoy the breakneck chases, dirty cops and cat-and-mouse games. This one is true joyride.