Archive for the ‘Thriller’ Category

Tell No One

Sunday, January 11th, 2009


Guillaume Canet’s terrific new thriller Tell No One starts up with a great set-up, and then adds layer upon layer of tricks and twists. It’s a labyrinthine story, and an astoundingly clever and intriguing mystery. Without revealing too much, Francois Cluzet plays Dr. Alexandre Beck, whose beloved wife Margot (Marie-Josee Croze) was murdered eight years earlier. Beck was eventually cleared of any wrong doing, but he was a suspect, and the local police still don’t trust him.

Fast forward eight years, and Beck is trying to get on with his life with the help of his sister Anne (Marina Hands) and her wife Helene (Kristin Scott Thomas), although the shadow of Margo follows him wherever he goes. The plot, as they say, thickens when Dr. Beck receives a mysterious email, and the police find two new bodies near the same lake where Dr. Beck’s wife was murdered eight years ago…

That’s about as much as I’ll say about the plot. I will say the story involves Margot’s father, a local police chief (Andre Dussollier), a detective who begins to doubt certain aspects of the case (Francois Berleand) and Jean Rochefort, who plays a local billionaire. Tell No One is a film that dares to have faith that its audience will able to keep up with the diabolical turns that the film takes.

I thought that a key part of the film’s success was its use of pop songs in many key scenes. There is a sequence where Dr. Beck is using a computer to communicate with a mysterious person via email, and Canet uses U2’s “With or Without You,” and the moment is completely devastating. Of course, the song is a perfect fit for the character, and the line “and you give yourself away” cannot be a coincidence, as Dr. Beck, with his actions, gives himself away.

The film reminded me a little of The Fugitive, mostly because of the “respected doctor accused of murdering his wife” angle, but also because of the film’s expert use of action scenes. There’s a great chase scene in Tell No One, which, unlike many chase scenes, actually leaves the protagonist exhausted and pooped out.

The cast is very good, but I thought that Francois Cluzet was especially convincing in the lead. It’s a powerful performance, and every bit as good as the more “serious” and award-friendly roles that are being touted about at the moment. Tell No One is a film that should be seen as soon as possible.

The Happening

Tuesday, June 24th, 2008


There are few big name directors currently working in Hollywood who polarize audiences as thoroughly and frequently as M. Night Shyamalan does. Some view him as a genius, a master of the fantasy and suspense genres and a true original. Others think he’s a hack who relies on twist endings to cover his shabby stories and silly dialogue. My feelings on Shyamalan tend to be somewhere towards the middle of these two sides. While I by no means think he’s a genius or superb director, I am also not convinced that he’s a hack.True, I’ve only really liked two of his films (Unbreakable and Signs), and even those weren’t perfect films, but they were interesting, told a good story and were anchored by good performances. His other films have good ideas at the core, I think, but something along the way gets lost in translation and the finished product is kind of a mess. The Sixth Sense I just didn’t like, I’ll admit it. It was goofy and if you take away “the twist,” you have an incredibly boring drama. The Village was a disaster, I think, and Lady in the Water was a failure, yeah, but man, it had some great pieces to it, I thought.This is all buildup, I guess, to talking about his latest interesting idea turned into mediocre movie: The Happening. The Happening, more than any of Shyamalan’s films, I think shows his struggles as an actor’s director. Mark Wahlberg is the kind of performer who needs a good actor’s director to give a good lead performance. Look at Scorsese’s The Departed or Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, these are directors who can help guide and steer performances. Of course, the script to The Happening doesn’t really give Wahlberg a chance to shine (Zooey Deschanel, who is usually such a fine actress, is especially hindered by the weak script).The Happening has an intriguing concept, but just doesn’t pull it off. Imagine that all of the sudden, a bunch of people (and I mean lots of people) start killing themselves, and nobody knows why. Imagine it spreads, like wildfire. Imagine there’s no way to get away from it. Then, imagine a movie that takes this plot and does next to nothing with it. Of course, it’s kind of ironic, I guess, for a film called The Happening not have much happen in it (a more accurate title, I think, would be “The Crappening.”)I appreciate that Shyamalan takes his time with the thrills and chills, relying on subtleties to show the threats the characters face (the breeze in the wind, for example), but he just doesn’t pull it off. He also creates subplots and sidetrips that don’t really have a point. The only actor who really made an impression on me was Frank Collison as the hot dog obsessed nursery owner who has his own crack-pot reason why the epidemic is “happening.” His wacky, burned out hippie type is the only character that stands out in this film. Everybody else (including a criminally misused John Leguizamo, Betty Buckley, ridiculously cast as a mean ol’ hermit lady, and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Alan Ruck) fades into the background.M. Night Shyamalan may someday make another movie that is worth watching, but it might be a while.


Thursday, June 19th, 2008


When I think of most of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpieces, I think of characters, plot details, specific scenes or lines of dialog. When I think of Vertigo, I think of mood, colors, Bernard Hermann’s frenzied, brilliant score, the unmatched beauty of Kim Novak, the image of Jimmy Stewart’s terrified, sweaty face after he wakes from a horrible nightmare (a nightmare which is a triumph of Hitchcock’s imagination, by the way). I think of the superb title sequence by the legendary Saul Bass that opens the picture (with a little help from Hermann’s mesmerizing theme).A couple of Sundays ago I had the opportunity to see Vertigo in its restored print at Cinema 21, in Northwest Portland. Cinema 21 is definitely one of my favorite theaters, and getting to see a revival showing of a classic film is a perfect way to end a weekend (or start a week, if you want to look at it that way). Now, I’ve seen Vertigo several times (and have analyzed it once or twice in film classes), but watching it on the big screen, in my favorite seat at Cinema 21 (the middle of the front row of the balcony, if you must know) was like watching it for the first time.I have no idea what my favorite list of Hitchcock films would look like, and I refuse to make one until I’ve seen all of them (a few of his more obscure entries have yet to be seen by me), but for my money, this would go somewhere towards the top. James Stewart’s work here definitely could be considered one of his greatest roles, and Kim Novak, in my opinion, is every bit as much the quintessential ‘Hitchcock Blond’ as Grace Kelly ever was. The film is considered a murder mystery, which I guess it is, but I think Vertigo is too unique of a film to be reduced to a genre.It’s always been, I think, more of a fever-induced dream (or nightmare.) It has the logic of a dream, at least; an otherworldly, slightly surreal feeling and mood. This is the kind of film people get lost in. Since the plot and character aspects of the film are not those which I first focus on, I hope you forgive me that I won’t concentrate too much on that.Much has been written about how this film is really about Hitchcock, and the way he used, controlled and manipulated the actresses in his films. You can see this in the Scotty (Jimmy Stewart) tries to mold his new love, Judy (Kim Novak), in the same image as his dearly departed, Madeline (also played by Novak). Of course, both of these women really are the same woman, so add that to another layer in the twisty, tricky script (written by Alec Coppel & Samuel Taylor). This reading of the film is the standard film geek reading, and it’s interesting, but the film also works if you’re not familiar with Hitchcock or this reading of the film.As I said earlier, this is one of the key performances in Stewart’s long and illustrious career, and Novak’s performance(s) is (are) crucial to the film’s success. Also crucial are the performances of Barbara Bel Geddes as Stewart’s friend who carries a torch for him, and Tom Helmore as Gavin Elster, an old college buddy of Scotty’s who hires him to follow his wife, Madeline.Oh, I forgot to even mention the astounding cinematography by Robert Burks (this really should be seen on the big screen at least once). Vertigo is a bona fide classic by one of the greats.

Vantage Point (*1/2)

Tuesday, March 4th, 2008


Vantage Point is a crummy movie. It’s silly, ridiculous, poorly written and, worst of all, it’s boring. It takes a gimmick, granted a good gimmick but still a gimmick, and sacrifices story and character for said gimmick. The idea of showing the same story from multiple points of view is not new (anybody who was wowed by this “fresh” idea should try watching Rashomon), but when done right, it can be really effective. Unfortunately, director Pete Travis and his crew make a 90 minute movie feel like an eternity.

The story: The President of the United States (William Hurt) is in Spain for some anti-terrorist conference, and, wouldn’t you know it, he gets shot. Only “nothing is as it seems.” Let’s see, all the stock characters for a hack-job political thriller are here: the noble president, the sneaky chief of staff, the over-the-hill secret service agent, the cold-blooded television producer, the everyman who gets it all on film, the disgraced law man and a variety of terrorists and news reporters.

In addition to Hurt giving us a monotone and mediocre performance as “POTUS” (the moniker that the Prez is referred by in the film), we have Dennis Quaid as the aging secret service agent, and I’m pretty sure Quaid doesn’t change his emotion from strained confusion for the entire film. Matthew Fox from “LOST” (I was reminded of both that great show and “24” in the film’s attempts to play with the time structure) plays Quaid’s buddy, and I can’t tell if it’s good acting or not, since it’s such a slight role. Forrest Whitaker is wasted in the Zapruder role, in fact the only actor who doesn’t come off horribly is Sigourney Weaver as the television producer, and she’s barely in the film. It’s not a great performance, but Weaver’s cold and cynical, and good in the role.

I think the film would’ve worked better had they concentrated on the mystery or political elements of the film, rather than a lame-brained car chase that goes on and on. If this film had been a real puzzle, with each different point of view offering a piece of said puzzle, perhaps it would’ve been a lot better. Or maybe not. All I know is this was a boring, forgettable piece of junk that I watched about a week ago and already am having trouble recalling most of the film.

No Country for Old Men (****)

Saturday, November 24th, 2007

If somebody was to make a list of the finest contemporary filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen would no doubt be on that list. Since their 1984 debut Blood Simple, the Coens have been a consistently reliable source for amazing motion pictures. I was about to say they’ve never made a bad movie, which is true, but it might be more telling to say they’ve never made a movie that I wouldn’t enthusiastically recommend to everybody I know. Their latest film, No Country for Old Men, based upon the novel by Cormac McCarthy, is another masterpiece: a shocking, thrilling movie with wit and nerve, plus the Coens’ usual does of quirky humor.

Like Blood Simple, No Country for Old Men, focuses on an unbelievably evil man in Texas. Played by Javier Bardem in a performance of unspeakable power, Anton Chigurh is a force of nature, a sociopath who lives to kill, and leaves a trial of bodies across the Lonestar state. The plot (which takes place in 1980) concerns Chigurh’s efforts to locate Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), who has in his possession a large sum of money he acquired after stumbling upon a drug deal gone terribly wrong. The third main character, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (played by Tommy Lee Jones), tries to figure out who is responsible for the massacre, and he also serves as the film’s moral center, a man confused and troubled by the state of things.

Each Coen Brother film has its own specific sub-genre, Blood Simple was neo-noir, The Big Lebowski was a detective story, Miller’s Crossing was a gangster picture, and No Country for Old Men is basically a slasher film, with Chigurh a more threatening presence than Michael Myers, Jason and Freddy put together. The film (along with the Tommy Lee Jones character) attempts to answer the question of how such an evil man can exist in a “civilized” world, much like the films Blood Simple and Fargo did.

This film is thrilling in the way few films are. In fact, this is the first time during a movie that I’ve noticed that my teeth were chattering, if that means anything. A key to the film’s success is the performance of Javier Bardem , who uses his physical stature to suggest a massive threat, a hulking figure like Frankenstein’s Monster. There is a scene where Anton Chigurh is smiling at another character, and I thought to myself, ‘this is what evil looks like.’ Josh Brolin is pitch-perfect in his crucial role as Moss, and with his exceptional work here and in American Gangster, I take back all of those Goonies jokes. Tommy Lee Jones’ work here is also vital to the film working; his monologues in the film say a great many things about human nature. Also, look at his expression in his scene at the hotel towards the end of the picture. Amazing.

Every Coen film has a great ensemble cast, and this film is no exception. In addition to the wonderful performances by Kelly Macdonald as Llewelyn’s wife, Stephen Root as a businessman, Woody Harrelson as a bounty hunter and Tess Harper as Sheriff Bell’s wife, there is a rich supporting cast that includes Garret Dillahunt and Barry Corbin. The Coens always cast even the smallest roles with perfect actors, such as Gene Jones as the owner of the gas station, in a sequence that will be remembered by Coen fans for years to come. Roger Boyce, who appears late in the film as a fellow sheriff, adds spice to his scenes. I could probably talk about all of the great roles in this film, but I’m sure I’d bore you to tears (like how about the border patrol man played by Brandon Smith??)

Roger Deakins, the great cinematographer who has been working with the Brothers Coen since Barton Fink, has outdone himself with his work here, it is spellbinding. The Coen Brothers have created a film work here that will be looked at and talked about for many years to come. And to those who hated the ending, all I can say is this, that’s the only way this story could have possibly ended.

The Number 23 (**)

Monday, November 19th, 2007


The last time Jim Carrey and director Joel Schumacher teamed up, they dazzled us with Batman Forever, and the film world has never been the same since. So, as you can assume the expectations for The Number 23, the film that reunites these two titans, were exceedingly high. Ok, that isn’t exactly true, but still, the film has an intriguing kernel of an idea that Schumacher and his screenwriter Fernley Phillips manage to do absolutely nothing interesting with. It doesn’t help that the film’s third act so closely mirrors the much better film The Mechanist that that film’s producers should think about legal action.

The Number 23 stars Jim Carrey as Walter Sparrow, a dog catcher/family man who is, as these films require, a “regular guy.” He’s happily married to Agatha (Virginia Madsen), and they have a young teenage son named Robin (Logan Lerman). The fact they named their son “Robin Sparrow” suggests that Walter and Agatha are not without a sense of humor. Anyway, one day Agatha spots a novel at a bookstore called “The Number 23,” and decides that this would be the perfect gift for her husband.

The book focuses on a detective by the name of Fingerling (who is also played by Carrey), and Sparrow begins to see hauntingly similar comparisons between himself and Fingerling. He also becomes obsessed, like Fingerling, with the Number 23. Now, this is where the movie could’ve have become interesting. As it’s explained by Isaac French, the character played by Danny Huston, the number 23 has a connection to 666, and is considered by some to be a number of the devil.

They could’ve done something really cool and different with this film, and made the number 23 a gateway to Hell or made Sparrow possessed by the number or something else unique and sinister, but instead, the plot twist is lame, contrived and silly. Not to mention, it has absolutely nothing to do with the Number 23. Nothing at all. After all the build-up, the number 23 in this film is just a McGuffin, and not a very good one at that.

Jim Carrey can play dramatic roles very well, but I thought he was a little miscast here, and the novelty of Jim Carrey appearing in a thriller wears thin after a while. It is funny to see Carrey and Virginia Madsen dressed in ridiculous Goth outfits in the Fingerling scenes, though. After her terrific work in Sideways, it’s getting depressing to Madsen in role after role as the concerned housewife, and she’s wasted here. Same goes for Danny Huston, who is such an interesting and gifted character actor. I was surprised to see Bud Cort in a bit role, that’s always fun to see him in a movie.

Joel Schumacher is a notoriously hit or miss director, and I’m afraid I would qualify this as one of his misses. One of the few things that I did like about this film was the cinematography by Matthew Libatique. It’s lush, dark, ominous and mysterious, unlike the movie itself. I wouldn’t say this is a horrible movie, but it’s not very good, and considering the star, it’s pretty disappointing.

Civic Duty (**1/2)

Tuesday, November 13th, 2007


Peter Krause is a good actor with a strong screen presence, probably best known for his work on two of the best shows of the last 10 years, “Sports Night” and “Six Feet Under”. His intensity and willingness to take his character to the darkest places are two of his great strengths, and indeed, his performance is the best thing about Civic Duty. It’s a thriller that has an intriguing premise, built on modern day fears and concerns (I thought of it kind of like a post-9/11 Rear Window), but in the end, it just doesn’t work.

Krause plays Terry Allen, an accountant who, as the film opens, has just been let go from his job, a victim of downsizing. In the early scenes, Terry seems troubled, distant, worried, which is understandable, considering his being fired. But, there seems to be something else, a deeper bitterness and anger. It doesn’t help that he is living in a culture where the ubiquitous media is constantly driving fear and despair into his soul, making him suspicious and nervous of just about everybody else, except for his wife, Marla (Kari Matchett).

Late one night, Terry can’t go to sleep. He spots a new neighbor moving in. Terry, much like Jimmy Stewart in the aforementioned Rear Window, will spend a lot of time looking at the window. He notices that the man looks “Middle Eastern,” and already the profiling begins. He starts to compile a list of the man’s activities, suspecting even his most mundane actions as part of some plot. He follows him on his errands, convinced of his guilt. His wife at first is almost amused by Terry’s obsession, but it quickly ceases being funny.

The man, a college student by the name of Gabe Hassan (played by Khaled Abol Naga), goes about his daily routine, not realizing that his every move is being watched. Civic Duty is a film built on an intriguing premise, but I felt that the director, Jeff Renfroe, and the screenwriter, Andrew Joiner, dropped the ball on the direction that the film takes. It could’ve been a terrific satire/thriller on how our culture creates fear and suspicion in our citizens through TV, the Internet, the news and our politicians. Or, they should have focused the film less on the thriller aspects and more on Terry himself. Instead, we have a half-baked thriller/character study hybrid that fails to satisfy either genre.

Jim Carrey look-alike Peter Krause is, like I said, the best thing about this movie, but even his finely nuanced performance can’t make this film more than momentarily interesting. Kari Matchett is gorgeous, but her character is nothing more than window dressing. Khaled Abol Naga has some good moments as the neighbor, but he also has a ridiculous scene where he and Krause argue political points that I doubt two characters in that situation would say (just the screenwriter trying to preach, I guess). Richard Schiff is well-cast as the local FBI agent.

Civic Duty features a strong performance from an underrated actor and an intriguing premise. Too bad it isn’t very good.

Michael Clayton (*** 1/2)

Saturday, October 20th, 2007


How did it happen? How did a former television superstar become one of the most reliable leading men in modern motion pictures? Further more, how did anybody from the cast of Batman & Robin ever win an Oscar? Somehow, George Clooney has become a cinematic force to be reckoned with. He’s always had a laid-back, disarming charm (probably first seen on the big screen in From Dusk Til Dawn,) but by the time Out of Sight and Three Kings came around, something changed, and he had become a great actor. Oh, and he won an Academy Award. Yet still, some don’t take him seriously as an actor. Yes, he was in Batman & Robin, but, you know what, of the lead actors, he was the only one who wasn’t completely horrible (yes, I said it).

Hopefully, his extraordinary work in Michael Clayton, the sharp, smart, biting new thriller from Tony Gilroy, will change the minds of the doubters. Clooney plays, get this, Michael Clayton, a “fixer” for a high-powered law firm in New York City (for those not in the know, a fixer is a guy who fixes problems. As Clayton sees it himself, “I’m a janitor.”) If you were to judge by his car, his suit, his look and his demeanor, you would say that Michael Clayton has his act together. But, behind that 200 dollar haircut is a failed marriage, a son who he only sees on the weekends, crushing debt, a gambling addiction and a restaurant venture with his younger brother that has gone south.

As the film opens, Arthur Edens, a top lawyer at the firm and a close friend of Clayton’s, has apparently lost it. During a deposition hearing where Edens was the head counsel defending U/North, a large corporation being sued for millions for pollution and contamination, Edens stripped down to his birthday suit and ran through the parking lot naked as a jay bird. When Clayton goes to bail him out and begin cleaning up this embarrassing mess, he assumes that Edens, a heavily medicated manic depressive, has simply stopped taking his pills. That’s not quite the case.

In presentation, content, mood and style, Michael Clayton is evocative of the spare, tense thrillers of the seventies. Movies like All the President’s Men, The Conversation, The Parallax View and The Three Days of the Condor (interestingly enough, Sydney Pollack, the director of Condor has a supporting role in this film). In an age where technology can do pretty much anything, government does things it probably shouldn’t and big corporations seem to follow their own rules, it’s appropriate that a modern thriller should have such an ubiquitous sense of paranoia and dread. It also features one of the most sudden acts of violence I’ve seen in a movie in the last five years.

Tony Gilroy, the screenwriter of the Bourne trilogy, The Devil’s Advocate and Armageddon (I forgive him for the sin of Armageddon), makes his directorial debut here, and it’s pretty impressive. In an age where thrillers aren’t really allowed to be intelligent, here’s a movie that dares to take itself (and the audience) seriously, and challenges us with a complex, intricate plot. As I mentioned earlier, Clooney has turned into a hell of an actor, and this might be his most nuanced, fascinating performance. He’s backed by a supporting cast of unusually strong actors. Tom Wilkinson gives a terrific performance as Arthur Edens, the mentally unhinged lawyer who drives the plot. Wilkinson creates a character who, after years and years of defending morally and ethically questionable clients, might be seeing things differently. Or he just really needs to take his meds. Wilkinson gets to spout some great conspiratorial rants, the kind of juicy acting that he can really sink his teeth into.

I read some article somewhere that stated that Sydney Pollack was a better actor than director; though I don’t know if that’s true (he’s a very good director), he is perfectly cast here as Marty Bach, the head of the law firm. He trusts and respects Michael, looks at him like a son, but also realizes, completely, the reality of what he does. I also got a kick out of Michael O’Keefe of Caddyshack fame playing Barry Grissom, Marty’s right hand man. Tilda Swinton, that fantastic character actress, plays Karen Crowder, a top executive at U/North who is put in charge of the Edens fiasco. I liked the dimension and subtlety that she brings to the role.

As with the thrillers of the 70s, Gilroy peppers his film with memorable bit players. Sean Cullen, as Michael’s frustrated cop brother Gene, and David Lansbury (Yes, he is related to Angela, she’s his auntie), as his younger brother Timmy, give an additional texture to the film in their scenes. I love it when a movie shows that the characters have a history, a family, a life outside of the plot. I must also give a shout-out to Brian Koppelman, who plays “Player # 2,” a poker player who goads and taunts Michael during a game. In his brief, small role, he makes his character’s presence known.

Michael Clayton is an expertly crafted, exceptionally acted thriller. It has a logic and a style all its own, and gives us a lead character who never shows the audience his hand or reveals his true motives. Even in that last shot, we wonder, what is going through his mind?

Eastern Promises (***)

Saturday, September 29th, 2007


David Cronenberg is one of the most distinctive of modern filmmakers in his vision and style, when you see one of his movies, you know it’s his. People often describe him mostly as a horror film director, which is sort of true, but not really. Yes, many of his more memorable movies such as The Brood, Scanners, The Dead Zone and The Fly could all be called “horror movies,” but that would be negating all the other films he’s made in his great career, films like Crash, Naked Lunch and eXistenZ are a lot harder to file under one specific genre. Then, in 2005 the excellent picture A History of Violence was released, and suddenly David Cronenberg was no longer viewed as a “monster movie” director but rather an auteur (even though he always had been).

I’ve gone to great lengths to prove that Cronenberg should not be labeled as a genre director, that he’s too unique and gifted a filmmaker, and yet, his latest film, Eastern Promises, is definitely a genre film. It’s a gangster movie, through and through. It’s a beautifully made gangster film, with strong performances and many great scenes, but after the complex and harrowing History of Violence, it seems unusual that Cronenberg is playing it so straight.

Eastern Promises centers around a Russian crime family residing in London, a midwife, a newborn baby and her 14 year old dead mother. The film opens with a brutal killing, and is quickly followed by another death, the aforementioned 14 year old. She dies during childbirth, and Anna (Naomi Watts), the midwife who delivered the child, wants to know who she was so that the child can live with her family. The only clues are a diary, written in Russian, that was in the young girl’s possession at the time of her death, and a business card for a restaurant. It is at this restaurant where we are introduced to the other main characters in the film. Armin Mueller-Stahl plays Semyon, the owner of the restaurant, who tells Anna that he will translate the diary. Also prominent to the story are Semyon’s son, Kirill (played by Vincent Cassel) and his driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen).

Most of the film revolves around Anna’s desire to uncover the secrets of the diary, and to protect the baby, and Semyon’s desire to prevent this from happening. The subtle power struggle between crime boss Semyon, his son and Nikolai is also a big part of the story. And, one can’t help but notice the buried feelings between Anna and Nikolai. The film deals with moral codes, trust, lies and secrets in a London that we haven’t in a film for a while: it is dark and dreary, a city made of decomposing buildings and long alleyways that hide what needs to be hidden. Cronenberg has fashioned a crime film that does not glamorize the criminal lifestyle nor make it exciting, his approach could be taken as the Anti-Scorsese. An early scene where a character prepares a body to be dumped makes the point that the gangster lifestyle is a bit of a hassle. Of course, the brutality of this lifestyle also comes into play, in a brilliant knife fight scene that will surely go down as one of the best fight sequences in the last ten or so years. Just brutal.

Viggo Mortensen is a terrific actor. He worked with Cronenberg on History of Violence, and of course, he is best known for his work as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings films, and his career is proof that movie stars don’t just pop up over night (he’s been working in movies since 1985.) Mortensen’s Nikolai is a great performance, watch the way Mortensen uses his facial expressions, body language, his presence to sell the character. There is a scene, for example, where he flirts with Anna while he leans against a pole like he owns the city. Naomi Watts plays a character who must hold her own against a world that is strange and threatening to her, she must, to protect the baby, to protect her family, to protect herself.

Armin Mueller-Stahl creates a character who is charming, kindly and frightening at pretty much the same time. Pay close attention to the scene where he asks Anna questions that seem friendly, but are in actuality, closer to threats. Vincent Cassel’s angry man-child thug of a son is a spoiled rich kid who wants to please his father, but is also impulsive and stupid. Sinead Cusack as Anna’s mother and Jerzy Skolimowski as her uncle threaten to steal the movie in their scenes together.

Eastern Promises is a good movie, with elements of greatness. I don’t think it ever quite gets there, but it’s definitely worth a look.