Eastern PromisesReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/14/07 00:42:15
If there is one unifying theme that links the films of David Cronenberg–both the icky horror extravaganzas such as “Scanners” and “The Fly” and the disturbing psychological dramas like “Dead Ringers” and “A History of Violence”–it is that they virtually all of them deal in one way or another with questions of identity. Over the years, he has given us an array of characters who are not at all as they appear to be on the surface, either literally or metaphorically, and has invited us to watch as they struggle to determine to themselves and others who (or what) they really are. In his latest work, “Eastern Promises,” the question of identity is not only the overriding theme of the storyline proper but it also extends to the way that it is being presented to potential audiences. On the surface, the film may look and sound like a conventional gangster thriller–the kind of anonymous potboiler that virtually anyone listed in the D.G.A. directory could handle with relatively little muss or fuss to provide viewers with a diverting Saturday night at the movies. However, right from the start, it becomes clear that Cronenberg has something very different on his mind and instead of presenting that potential run-of-the-mill genre picture, he gives us a film that doesn’t unfold in the ways that you might expect and instead becomes the kind of dark, disturbing and deeply fascinating work that jolts you while you are watching it unfold and continues to insinuate itself into your mind long after the end credits have rolled.Set in London between Christmas and New Year’s, “Eastern Promises” kicks off with two roughly simultaneous incidents that appear on the surface to have nothing to do with each other except for the fact that both involve copious amounts of bloodletting. In the first, a visit to the local barbershop goes exceedingly badly for a customer when he is gruesomely dispatched while sitting in the chair making small talk with the owner. In the second, the very young and very pregnant Tatiana (Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse) staggers into a drugstore, plaintively begs for help and then begins messily hemorrhaging on the floor. While the man from the barbershop is dealt with in a certain way, Tatiana is rushed to the hospital and while she dies on the operating table, the doctors are able to save her baby. Among the physicians attending this life-and-death moment is midwife Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), a woman who is determined to find a relative of Tatiana’s so that her child doesn’t wind up in the foster care system. To that end, Anna grabs the her diary but discovers that it is written in Russian–though that is her heritage, she cannot read the language. When her eternally grumpy uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski) refuses to translate the diary for her, Anna finds a business card tucked in it that leads her to the Trans-Siberian Restaurant, a lush Russian establishment operated by the kindly Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Semyon has never heard of Tatiana before but graciously offers to translate the diary for Anna if she will return with it the next day.
What Anna does not know, but what we quickly discover, is that Semyon is not exactly what he seems to be. He is actually the head of the vory v. zakone, a notorious Russian mob family that he runs out of the restaurant with the help of his hot-headed son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and the cool and collected Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen), an outsider who has been brought into the family as a “driver” (although his duties are certainly not limited to sitting behind the wheel). It also turns out that he is behind a white slavery ring that brings young girls over from Russia under false pretenses and then forces them into prostitution–among them was Tatiana, who chronicled all the horrifying details in her diary. Once Anna learns of this–her uncle went ahead and began translating–she becomes a threat to the entire organization and Semyon orders Nikolai, whom he is grooming for a high position in the family, to deal with her and the baby. This is not an easy decision for Nikolai as he is torn between his loyalty to Semyon and his growing interest in Anna. Further complicating matters is the presence of Kirill, who sees both Nikolai and Anna as threats–the former because of his father’s obvious preference for the outsider over his own flesh-and-blood and the latter because he appears to be nursing a barely-sublimated crush on Nikolai himself.
To reveal any more of what transpires in Steven Knight’s screenplay would be exceedingly unfair so all I will say in that regard is that it manages to throw plenty of twists and turns at viewers while always playing fair and without letting the later developments get too ridiculous for their own good. It is a strong screenplay and could have easily been made into an above-average thriller in the hands of an ordinary director but in Cronenberg’s hands, it mutates into something far more memorable indeed. Right from the start, he finds the correct tone of quiet menace and maintains it for 100 straight minutes without faltering once. Along with Anna, Cronenberg plunges us into a world that is both familiar (it is set in London, after all) and utterly alien and instead of spelling things out for us, he makes us fend for ourselves by trying having us determine who is good, who is bad and, most importantly, who is really who they claim to be.
Another manner in which Cronenberg unnerves us is the manner in which he handles the matter of on-screen violence. While you have no doubt seen films with a greater number of on-screen acts of violence than the ones seen here–there are only three or four, depending on whether you count Tatiana’s hemorrhaging or not–I can almost guarantee that you haven’t seen violent scenes in a film that have packed the amount of dramatic impact as the ones seen here in a long time. With that opening barbershop murder, Cronenberg establishes that in this world, violence is strangely intimate (there are no shootings in this film–all the blood is spilled via linoleum knives), exceedingly painful and can occur in an instant regardless of the setting. As a result, we are so utterly unnerved that the subsequent scenes get an extra bit of juice from our knowledge that while nothing violent may be happening at the moment, it could happen at any time–a party scene at the restaurant that takes places soon after the barbershop murder generates an almost unbearable amount of tension and dread because we can’t help but imagine what could happen any minute. Then, just when it seems as if that particular spell might be wearing off by about the two-thirds mark, he offers up another jolt with a bloody bathhouse fight between a naked Nikolai and a pair of vicious goons out to kill him–this four-minute ballet of brutality is one of the most intense things that I have ever seen on a movie screen and will soon land a high ranking on the list of the all-time great cinematic fight scenes.
Although the display of his nether regions in the aforementioned fight scene have garnered him the lion’s share of the advance publicity for “Eastern Promises,” I suspect that viewers will be so knocked out with Viggo Mortensen’s performance as Nikolai that they will hardly notice the nudity. As good as he was in his previous collaboration with Cronenberg, “A History of Violence” (which could have served as the title for this film as well), his work here may be even better because of the way that he so thoroughly disappears into the role–if you didn’t already know him otherwise, you might find yourself wondering where Cronenberg found this unknown Russian actor. With his quiet, almost courtly demeanor, he seems like a nice enough guy–we can understand Anna’s attraction to him even after she realizes the true nature of the people he works for–but there is never a time when he isn’t convincing us that he capable of terrible acts as well. Although saddled with the less showy role–she is, after all, essentially serving as our eyes and ears into an alien world–Naomi Watts does an impressive job of convincing us that her character would continue to stick around and press her case even when common sense would dictate that she head for the hills in order to save her own skin. As the true villain of the piece, Armin Mueller-Stahl is impressive in the way that he mixes courtliness and ruthlessness in a way that makes his character seem like the ultimate epitome of true evil caught in the guise of a sweet-natured grandfather. In the smaller roles of Kirill and Uncle Stepan, Vincent Cassel and Jerzy Skolimowski are both excellent as two sides of the same coin–despite being on two sides of the law (Stepan constantly claims, perhaps truthfully and perhaps not, that he used to work for the K.G.B.), each one is hot-headed, impulsive and, as it turns out, their own worst enemies.When I emerged from the screening of “Eastern Promises,” I knew that I had seen a great film but I wasn’t completely sure at the time if I considered it to be a top-tier David Cronenberg film along the lines of such favorites as “Videodrome,” “Dead Ringers” and “A History Of Violence.” That said, it has been marinating in my mind ever since and I am now completely comfortable in announcing it as one of his finest films to date–an endlessly inventive work that finds new and fascinating ways of telling a story that might have otherwise seemed overly familiar, contains a gallery of great performances from a group of actors working at the peak of their powers and includes, as mentioned, one of the most knock-out cinematic set-pieces ever placed before a camera. If that weren’t enough, it also contains a final scene that not only wraps the story proper up in a manner that can only be described as perfect, it also raises enough additional questions to fuel post-screening arguments long into the night. If you are on the squeamish side, you might want to think twice about seeing “Eastern Promises”–in the wake of the cartoonish gore of films like “Halloween” and “Shoot Em Up,” it is bracing to see on-screen violence intense enough to make an impact for reasons other than the amount of blood being spilled–but if that isn’t a problem for you, this is a must-see achievement from the mind of one of the finest directors working today.
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