Friday, September 14, 2007

"Eastern Promises" -- * * * 1/2

David Cronenberg, even in his weaker works, has always had the power to fascinate with his films' themes and violence alike. Coming after possibly his best and most divisive film, 2005's "A History of Violence," his latest, the exhilarating "Eastern Promises," is one of his most entertaining movies, and probably his most conventionally accessible/mainstream. Though on the surface it may appear to be solely that, in many ways it's just as weighty and thought-provoking as "Violence," just more subtle about its themes.

As soon as the opening credits wind down, the film doesn't really allow us to breath till about 10-15 minutes in, opening with a 14-year-old Russian girl bursting into a convenience store, asking for help before blood pours out from her skirt and she collapses. After being rushed to the hospital, where she dies while giving birth to her baby, the girl's diary (written completely in Russian) is stolen out of curiosity by midwife Anna (Naomi Watts), who also feels responsibility/desire to care for the child. Through ownership of the diary, she also feels responsible to trace the baby-- and the now-dead mother's-- history and what led up to the recent events.

Finding a business card for a local Russian eatery, Anna follows the lead and has a series of meetings with the restaurant's owner, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who is head of London's Russian organized crime family, the Vory V Zakone. Though Semyon is initially helpful, he gradually becomes more and more threatening and insistent on obtaining the diary, worried it might have incriminating information about his son Kirill (Vincent Cassell).

Throughout the uneasy interactions with Semyon and Kirill, Anna develops a rapport with their driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), who seems to be a better person than those he works for, or at least have traces of humanity. As the film follows Anna's investigation, it also depicts Nikolai's climbing the ranks in the Vory V Zakone, and Semyon's favoring of him as more of a son than his own flesh-and-blood, Kirill. Using the posthumous narration of Tatiana, the film slowly doles out the diary's contents, which contain such unspeakable deeds that one character insists on washing their hands after simply reading it.

Adding another layer of dimension to the proceedings is the importance of tattoos throughout. All the Vary V Zakone members have tattoos that tell their life story as well as rank their importance (one states that "without tattoos, you don't exist"); stars on one's knees indicate they kneel before no one, etc. In a chilling scene late in the film, Nikolai stands nearly nude in front of Russian mafiosos and needn't say a word-- they merely gaze upon his tattoo-covered body and know the whole story.

Much of what people are inevitably going to discuss about "Eastern Promises" is the level of the film's violence and understandably so. Cronenberg has gone on the record as being surprised by this reaction, considering how much more violent last year's Best Picture winner "The Departed" was.While this may be true simply in terms of quantity, the violence in "Promises" is significantly more stomach-churning than the Scorsese film. Though scenes of carnage are spare (highlighted by two of the most graphic throat slittings I've ever seen), when they arrive, they have a gut-level impact. To be fair, they're foreshadowed to the audience, allowing squeamish audience members time to cover their eyes (one scene begins with Nikolai announcing "Okay, now I'm going to do his teeth and cut off his fingers").

Watts is very good here-- she's incapable of giving an uninspired performance-- but considering she's ostensibly the film's protagonist, it's startling how little she has to work with. It's the movie's one major flaw that Anna is given only as much depth, development and crucial activity as Monica Belucci's DQ in "Shoot 'Em Up." We're told she had a baby who died in the womb, and she stands around being an observer to everything interesting in the movie. It's clear she took this part for the opportunity to work with Cronenberg, not a chance to take on a meaty role.

Mortensen-- who's almost depressingly jacked for a man about to turn 50-- is phenomenal as Nikolai in a complex performance that would get an Oscar nomination in a just world, but I fear is likely to be overlooked by the Academy and most audiences as well (though Viggo's probably used to it by now). Nikolai is almost like the inverse to Mortensen's Tom Stall in "A History of Violence."

While there, he was a innocuous family man with a hidden dark/violent side, here he's a brutal, hardened man of violence (who's so badass, he puts out his cigarette on his own tongue) with hidden depth and understanding. A scene where Nikolai has to fuck a whore from behind to prove to Kirill he's "not a queer," while we see his pained face revealing years of having to do this sort of shit, is some of the best acting you'll see all year. Most audience members will be grateful that Nikolai becomes more-and-more the focus of the film as it goes on.

Mueller-Stahl is back doing his twinkly-eyed Nazi shtick-- warm-hearted grandfather on the outside, violent monster underneath-- as Semyon, and it's great to have the guy back. Despite him playing familiar parts in the past, he's incredibly effective, and while it's remarkably difficult to make a 76-year-old frightening, Mueller-Stahl does just that.

Ever since I first heard whispers of a new Cronenberg, I have not been able to hear a single discussion of "Eastern Promises" without mentions of what I'm going to call simply "the scene." Considering "the scene" comes at "Eastern's" 75-minute mark with only 20 minutes left in the film, I think any critic who describes what happens during it should be ashamed of themselves. All I'll say is it involves simultaneous nudity and violence, and it may just be the best (certainly the most breathlessly gripping) sequence of a movie you'll see all year.

Though I don't think the movie features a single "joke," Cronenberg's trademark humor and sense of tragedy are always ever-present. After a particularly graphic death, Cronenberg cuts immediately to a seemingly-unrelated (until the scene goes on) shot of a long-haired blonde gentleman singing along to his accordion for an unprecedented amount of time that should have most audience members laughing, even if they don't know exactly why. On the other end of the spectrum, the movie never loses sight of the tragic existence of Tatiana-- promised fulfillment of her dreams in the U.K., only to be dragged into a life of prostitution and violence (hence the film's title).

Written by Steve Knight ("Dirty Pretty Things"), "Eastern Promises" revels in its moral ambiguity-- in a way that excites, not frustrates, you-- right down to it's remarkable final shot. Opening on the same day as "In the Valley of Elah," a film that tells the audience what to think at every turn, it's a pleasure to watch a movie that works as a piece of entertainment as well as one with a complexity that allows them to make up their own minds if they choose to devote the thought.

"Eastern Promises" opens today in New York, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington DC, Boston, Dallas, Chicago and Philadelphia, and nationwide September 21st.

OSCAR POTENTIAL: Best Actor (Viggo Mortensen), Best Original Screenplay
Like I said, I doubt the Academy has the capacity to appreciate Mortensen's work here, but it's a possibility-- a guy can dream can't he? And while it's not the sort of thing they're prone to nominate, I could easily see Knight's screenplay slipping in.


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