Sunday, September 23, 2007

Eastern Promises

David Cronenberg's transition from sci-fi and horror films to crime thrillers was both sudden and seamless. With the raw, unforgiving Eastern Promises, the splatterhouse god behind The Fly and Scanners has now entered Scorsese territory with an assured confidence. This isn't as complex a film as Cronenberg's last outing, A History of Violence, which disappointed some audiences by being a more cerebral than visceral take on the nature of bloodletting. Eastern Promises is more of a showcase for actor Viggo Mortensen, who handled the sudden transitions in Violence well but gives the performance of his career this time around as the mysterious gangland enforcer Nikolai Luzhin.

In fact, if I could identify the lone flaw of Eastern Promises, it's that by far the most compelling character isn't actually the protagonist. The rather straight-forward A story follows London midwife Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), whose discovery of a dead mother's diary leads her into the hazardous world of the Russian Mafia (the Vory V Zakone). We get a bit of background on Anna, an explanation for why she's so motivated to find a family for her deceased patient's baby, but there really isn't much to her character, and Watts spends most of the film looking worried and forlorn while more interesting personalities pivot around her. It would be as if Goodfellas focused on Morrie the wig salesman or The Godfather spent all its time with Kay's family.

It's doubtful that any performance or subplot, no matter how intriguing, could have stood alongside Mortensen's here. Nikolai Luzhin is really an ideal film character in that he's a mass of contradictions. He's charismatic, and even friendly, but also a cold-blooded murderer. He's handsome, but covered in fearsome prison tattoos. He's interesting and worldly, but he spends his time babysitting the spoiled, psychotic son (Vincent Cassel) of a cruel and manipulative mob boss (Armin Mueller-Stahl, in the film's other great performance).

What's so amazing about Mortensen in the part is his control. He's doing a big, over-the-top character with a realistic Russian accent, but continually resists the temptation to take over a scene or overstate his presence. He really does very little for the first half hour of the movie, but you're constantly aware of his presence in the scene. He takes up all the oxygen without saying a word. And when Cronenberg finally breaks the tension, in a brutal knife fight no less, it's one of the most audacious and essential sequences in his entire catalog. (I'm a huge fan of Cronenberg's, too, so I don't say that lightly). Film students are going to study this virtuoso scene for decades; it's remarkable.

Like Scorsese's presentation of Daniel Day-Lewis' Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York, there is a sense that Eastern Promises exists largely to provide a platform for this one character and a singular director's vision. Little else in Steven Knight's script really stands out from any other garden-variety mob movies. There are a few scenes with Anna, her mother (Sinéad Cusack) and her feisty Russian uncle (Jerzy Skolimowski) that recall History of Violence in their treatment of normal people caught in a grim, violent situation wholly outside of their experience. And as I indicated, Mueller-Stahl does typically great work as the heartless criminal Semyon, who'd sell out just about anyone and anything to protect the family business. (Cronenberg's attention to atmosphere and cultural details, such as setting the bulk of the film's action in a Russian restaurant and filling the soundtrack with Russian songs and dialogue, similarly recalls Scorsese).

Eastern Promises works because that performance and that director are of such a high caliber. Clearly, Cronenberg has seen something in Viggo Mortensen that few other directors have managed to tap, and their collaborations have both been daring and thoughtful in equal measure. The film is worth seeing, really, for that knife fight alone. Everything else is just gravy.

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