Eastern Promises (***)

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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.

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