Friday, January 4, 2008

Eastern Promises (2007)

For my money, the best film of 2005 was David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence. In a year that featured no stand out films, where a B-level message movie (Crash) was honored as the best of the year, the Canadian auteur’s tightly-plotted small town noir seemed woefully under-appreciated. But even though 2007 was a much better year for movies, Cronenberg’s follow-up Eastern Promises is still one of the better films of that year, once again establishing him as one of the most distinctive and uncompromising filmmakers working today.

A History of Violence’s darker urban cousin, Eastern Promises re-teams Cronenberg with the excellent Viggo Mortensen, but trades the midwestern American vistas of that film for the stone architecture of London, which has rarely looked as cold or dreary as it does here. The story centers on Anna, a London midwife (admirably played by Naomi Watts) who comes into possession of a 14-year-old Russian girl’s diary after the girl dies in childbirth. Determined to find a way to notify the girl’s family, Anna attempts to get the diary translated, but in doing so is inadvertently drawn into contact with the Vory V Zakone, a Russian mafia headed by the charming Simeon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his mercurial son Kirill (Vincent Cassel). Her only ally is the mob’s mysterious driver Nikolai (Mortensen), a former thief on the verge of being accepted as a full member of the crime syndicate.

Like many Cronenberg films, Eastern Promises explores another world that exists just beneath the realm of polite society, where the “normal” person’s ways of understanding violence and cruelty no longer apply. Indeed, the more intertwined Anna becomes with the Vory V Zakone the less she and her family understand it. Upon hearing that Simeon has demanded to be given the girl’s diary, which contains several incriminating statements about he and his business, Anna’s mother exclaims “we are ordinary people!” as though in saying it she can reassert her identity as an average citizen. Nikolai, too, does his best to keep Anna away from the underworld. “You belong in there with nice people,” he says at one point after the two leave a restaurant, “stay away from people like me.”

Cronenberg’s direction is as tight and measured as ever, drawing the viewer into this dark but utterly fascinating subculture, where criminals’ histories of violence are literally written on their body in artful but threatening tattoos. These intimidating tattoos are most on display in the film’s centerpiece, a knife fight in a steam bath between Nikolai and two Chechen gangsters that becomes almost primordial in its brutality. Outside of this scene, the violence in Eastern Promises is always brief but incredibly graphic, a Cronenberg trademark. He catches an unnecessary amount of flak from critics for his depictions of violence onscreen. He is often described as sadistic or overly graphic, but his use of violence is nothing if not realistic. He is a filmmaker who realizes that above all else violence should be difficult to watch. There is never anything cool or kinetic about killing in his films, and here all the violence is committed with knives, lending a distinctly personal and intimate quality to acts that are so often portrayed as dispassionate in Hollywood films.

In addition to Cronenberg’s pitch-perfect style, Eastern Promises also enjoys an excellent group of supporting actors, chief among them Armin Mueller-Stahl as Simeon. His performance as the “godfather” of the Vory V Zakone is one of the most subtle and effective in the film, as he often manages to be both avuncular and utterly terrifying within a single scene. Vincent Cassel is also superb as Simeon’s son Kirill, a drunk and latent homosexual who has introduced Nikolai into the crime family. His character is the catalyst for a lot of the action in the film, and though he is despicable throughout, Cassel manages to instill in him some real humanity.

Still, this film belongs to Mortensen, who pulls of the role of Nikolai flawlessly. He has proven himself one of the more consistently excellent actors working today, and his role here is no exception. He has the gift of being both brutal and surprisingly gentle, and this lends an inordinate amount of realism to every film he appears in. Eastern Promises hinged on the believability of the character of Nikolai, and after watching Mortensen in action its hard to picture anyone else playing the role.

Eastern Promises is not a Great (that’s with a capital “G”) film, but part of why it works so well is that it never intended to be. The film is effectively a closed system, content to operate in its own world under its own rules. One of Cronenberg’s great gifts as a filmmaker is his modesty; he never tries to elevate his material above what it is on its surface, and is comfortable working within the worlds he creates. While this may be a part of why he as a director has never been adequately recognized, it is ultimately the reason why his films are so tight and well-constructed.

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