The title of Canadian auteur David Cronenberg's new film Eastern Promises may not sound very familiar to you. In fact, it may very likely sound like something you would go out of your way not to watch. There is a bland, generic sound to the title that is at complete odds with the exciting, challenging and hypnotic work lurking beneath. Yes, folks, we have us a winner and I've been appointed (Never mind by who!) to tell you that you owe it to yourselves to mark this one down on your "To See" lists. And hey, you get to see Aragorn in ways never before imagined (although perhaps fantasized by some...).
Eastern Promises follows a damaged midwife named Anna (the most luminous Naomi Watts), as she attempts to piece together the truth regarding a young girl's death. The girl, track-marked and filthy, dies in childbirth, leaving a healthy baby girl and a diary behind. She soon finds herself inside the Russian restaurant of Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a seemingly friendly old man, who is overly eager to take the diary off Anna's hands and provide her with a proper translation. Little to her knowing, Semyon is an extremely dangerous mob kingpin, and soon she finds herself involved not only with him, but also his disturbed son Kirill (Seymour Cassel) and stoic, quiet driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). What follows brings dark secrets to light and incidents occur that alter the future of both Anna's family (Made up of her mother and Russian immigrant Uncle), and Semyon's.
I was not someone who was over the moon for Cronenberg's previous critical darling A History Of Violence. I felt that film strayed into Bizzaro-land half way through and never really ended on a satisfying note. Evidently, many disagree. Regardless, Eastern Promises is a completely satisfying cinematic experience. Cronenberg (left)has taken a familiar genre and crafted something personal and stunningly elegant. To be sure, Promises is often stomach-churningly violent, with graphic bodily dismemberment and stabbings, but it is also beautiful to look at. Its dark hues and artistically seedy environments breathe their atmosphere onto the audience. We don't sit by as passive watchers, we feel this world. The credit for this has to go to Cronenberg and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, who obviously weren't content to just tell a great story (written by Steven Knight) and ignore the visual details.
The tone of the film is also greatly refreshing. It isn't a very long film, but Cronenberg is in no real hurry. Now, maybe I'm alone, but I've found myself increasingly more impressed by films that just take their time and let us spend time with the characters. Eastern Promises does this nicely, and we find ourselves as unwittingly pulled into the violent Russian underworld as Naomi Watt's character. It's seductive really, and a tribute to Cronenberg's faith in his story to just let the events happen without forcing the story ahead.
It's so refreshing to see a movie that tells not only a fascinating story, but fills it with brilliantly accomplished performances. In my last review, for Jodie Foster's The Brave One, I cited her and Terrence Howard's acting over the somewhat generic story. None of that here, thank you. Viggo Mortensen gives a performance that, God willing, should easily place him on the award ballots at the end of the year. His mob driver, Nikolai, is a man of few words who says more through bodily gestures and looks than we initially realize. Mortensen also gives his character a frightening capacity for sudden violence that is stunning. There is a four minute fight scene in a Russian bath where he battles two armed thugs, wearing nothing but a body-ful of tattoos. Many actors would look uncomfortable or get giggles for fighting with their, er, hobbits, on full display, but Mortensen makes it scary and animalistic. He is also brilliantly strong in his scenes with each of the supporting actors. His scenes with Watts, in particular, are captivating in how they communicate the character's buried sensitivity and yearning for this damaged soul who symbolizes a glimmer of purity outside of the abyss he has become entangled in. Frankly, I'll be writing many a letter if Mortensen doesn't get an Oscar nod in the New Year. That's right! Many!
Also insanely award-worthy is Armin Mueller-Stahl. His sternly vicious mob boss Semyon is the most masterfully handled portrayal of this type since Marlon Brando stuffed his mouth full of cotton. Mueller-Stahl (right) wonderfully mixes silent menace and grandfatherly friendliness to create a character we could almost love... If he wasn't such a complete bastard. And while Cassel's and Mortensen's characters handle all the ugly stuff on-screen, it's Mueller-Stahl who disgusts us the most. He's a sick man in a never-ending struggle to maintain his dignity and reputation. He is disappointed beyond belief in his son, but realizes that he is all that is left to carry on his mantle. Mueller-Stahl makes us feel this man's pain and we understand why characters cling to this man's side. Semyon may be a monster, but he is a comforting paternal presence who truly understands what he is doing. It truly is dazzling work.
Naomi Watts is typically strong... Though I'm not sure if she has ever given anything less than A-quality efforts. She will likely be overlooked here, as her character is the entry point for the audience and thus lacks the eccentric flourishes of the other characters. Still, it's another triumph for an actress who is often taken for granted.
Also easy to look past is Vincent Cassel. Cassel (below right) has become such a master of playing sleazy dirtbags that we almost fail to recognize what he brings to this film. His character is the weakest of the central characters, and the one who realizes how lost he is in this world. It's all he knows, yet he is a loose cannon with little hope of ever being able to properly take his father's place. In several scenes, Cassel lets the bravado of the character crack apart and reveal the insecurity and deranged anger within. He's both frightening and pitiful, and Kirill is another worthy addition to the actor's rogues gallery of villains.
It's important to mention that Eastern Promises isn't as idea-packed as some of Cronenberg's previous works. Rather, it's a brilliant genre film as well as an incisive character piece. It gives all the thrills that come with the mobster flick territory, but manages to touch us a little deeper. It's a melancholy gem that is ambiguous and immersive. It's also one of the strongest films of the year.
My only complaint is that I wanted to spend more time with these people. Even if they are bloody and bare-ass naked.
4.5 out of 5