Eastern Promises

Reviewed By Lybarger
Posted 09/21/07 22:25:59

"The Russian Mob, and so much more."
5 stars (Awesome)

As he matures, Canadian director David Cronenberg takes seemingly conventional movie ideas and finds compelling angles that most other filmmakers ignore. On the surface, ‘Eastern Promises’ is a grim, hard-hitting look at London’s Russian mob, but Cronenberg and screenwriter Steve Knight (‘Amazing Grace’) are actually examining the broader questions of whether people can live moral lives even in the foulest places on Earth.

As with “A History of Violence,” Cronenberg finds surprising narrative and emotional depth in his sordid subject. A lot of recent films desensitize a viewer to the brutalities some of the characters commit by cutting away from the action or by having the characters wisecrack their way through human dismemberment.

Without reveling in the carnage or suffering his characters experience, Cronenberg makes viewers feel every blow or stab wound the characters endure. He also has an unerring instinct for when the audience has been sufficiently horrified so that he can cut away. Even when the good guys come out on top in his movies, it’s not a comfortable or easy experience. But it certainly is rewarding.

Unlike some of his acclaimed peers, Cronenberg deserves praise for simply not wasting a viewers’ time and for getting right to the story. After quickly presenting the horrific demise of a gangster who has made one too many enemies, Cronenberg effortlessly shifts to following a midwife named Anna (Naomi Watts) who has been trying to help an abandoned teenage mother deliver her baby.

When the young woman dies in labor, Anna sets out to find the infant’s surviving relatives. This proves to be a potentially lethal mistake because the underage woman was a prostitute who had been lured from Russia by the mob.

The crime family who led her into prostitution is headed by Semyon (a terrific Armin Mueller-Stahl), who can be a charming, grandfatherly fellow with his restaurant customers but is not above kicking his own son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) if things don’t go his way.

Kirill has a quiet but eerily effective lieutenant named Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen, “A History of Violence”) who helps Anna with her inquiries while reporting back to Semyon.

Anna may be a naďve about the brutal world she’s entered, but it doesn’t take her long to realize that her concern for the orphaned child may have put her and her entire family into danger.

None of this would be terribly urgent or gripping if Cronenberg weren’t as good as motivating actors as he is at making prosthetics pass for real gore. Mortensen is ideally cast as Nikolai, spouting out a convincing accent and projecting an assured menace. But Mortensen also gives Nikolai a believable humanity. He can persuade fellow wise guys out of committing additionally heinous acts by simply giving them a sidelong glance.

Does he have a conscience his crooked peers lack or is he up to something more sinister than even Semyon could conceive? That question keeps “Eastern Promises” chugging along at a furious pace.

Mortensen should have received an Oscar nomination for his subtle turn in “A History of Violence” and could receive a nod for this one as well. Thankfully, he seems to push the rest of the cast into doing their best as well.

Watts manages to hold her own against Mortensen’s inspired work and believably stares down the intimidating Mortensen and Cassel. She also projects just enough intelligence to make you believe that she’s figured out that Semyon is as sadistic as he is ingratiating.

The film has received a fair amount of publicity because of a scene where a naked Nikolai fights for his life against two assassins. Viewers who bought tickets because they’re hot for Mortensen’s heavily tattooed bod may be in for a jolt. The sequence is more brutal than it is arousing, and it’s disturbing because all bets are off in the conflict. No move is too dirty. Cronenberg shoots the sequence in long wide takes that make it seem more real and unflinching.

But the most haunting images from “Easter Promises” come not from the violence but from parting stares that indicate when one character is about to lose his life or when another has lost his soul.

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