Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Sinead Cusack, Jerzy Skolimowki
MPAA Rating: (for strong brutal and bloody violence, some graphic sexuality, language and nudity)
Running Time: 1:40
Release Date: 9/14/07 (limited); 9/21/07 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik
Eastern Promises is a mediocre crime thriller—nothing more, nothing less. That it's directed by David Cronenberg is disappointing. Sure, some have gone on praising his "new" foray into basic genre pictures and bringing to them his own strange sensibility, completely missing that the man has built his career by making genre films with a distinct sense of unease and oddity. The problem with this movie and his last A History of Violence is a sense of redundancy. His previous movie had a strong first and second act only to repeat it, sans variation, in the third, and this one plods along familiar territory, hinting at deeper, darker things and never bringing them to the surface. They're script problems, and Steven Knight's screenplay here is all about undercurrents of menace set against melodramatic turns of betrayal and retribution. Cronenberg gets it. The sense of unease is palpable in a good number of scenes, and the actors follow suit, bristling with sinister intentions. What's missing is a point, or better, a point beyond the evil of crime family dealings and the story's obvious, moralistic reversal. There's nothing beyond, even though Knight noticeably tries to fool us otherwise.
It starts on the dark streets of London outside a barber shop. The barber Azim (Mina E. Mina) is cutting a man's hair, and Azim's nephew (Josef Altin) enters. Azim tells him to do his job; the man (Aleksandar Mikic) is unaware of the uneasy sense surrounding him. Finally, the nephew slits the man's throat. Elsewhere, a young girl (Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse) enters a pharmacy and begins to hemorrhage. At the hospital midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) helps the girl deliver her baby. The girl dies; the baby lives. At home, Anna tells her mother Helen (Sinéad Cusack) and uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowki) about the girl's diary, written in Russian, and wonders if its contents might lead her to the girl's family and a home for the baby away from the foster care system. A business card leads her to a restaurant owned by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who takes an uncomfortable interest in the diary and Anna's life. Meanwhile, Semyon's son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and his driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) visit Azim, and Nikolai, or as Kirill calls him, "the undertaker," helps Azim dispose of the body. Turns out, they are all part of the vory v zakone, an organized crime syndicate, who have a lot at stake with the diary in others' hands.
The diary is a MacGuffin, setting into motion the clash of Anna and her normal, middle-class life and the underworld of Semyon. The two plots here are familiar. Anna and her family think the contents of the diary point to a need for justice on the crime clan, while a power struggle between Kirill and Semyon simmers under the scenes within the syndicate. Nikolai turns into the focal point, becoming a third-party go-between for the conflicting sides. Viggo Mortensen plays the role like a human vacuum. He takes in events but shows nothing in response to them, and it's a strong performance because of that quality. We have no idea where Nikolai's loyalties lie. He appears tough and unremorseful, but he's also thoughtful about the diary and its implications. Similarly, Armin Mueller-Stahl is so vacuously pleasant as Semyon, it's clear something isn't quite right about him, especially when he goes from asking Anna about where she works to where she lives. The scenes involving the vory v zakone feel authentic, with the dialogue hinting at dark dealings in metaphors and euphemisms, but the plotting is straightforward, the characters are more caricatures of mobster types only there to further the plot, and the thematic potential is squandered on a simple violence-begets-violence mentality.
The story of Anna and the diary never fits in to the whole overall structure beyond the superficial level of her possession of said diary. Whatever social undertones could be present in this conflict of lifestyles are never developed, and the whole story arc only gets as far as the crime syndicate threatening Anna and her family and realizing they know too much. Still, there are worthwhile moments apart from the formula. The relationship between Nikolai and Kirill is intriguing. Semyon is convinced his son might not be the most masculine of sons, and certainly the way Kirill watches from the wings as Nikolai has sex with a prostitute is disturbing for more than one reason. When the script calls for violence, Cronenberg delivers with viscera. Beyond the opening throat-slashing (more of a sawing, really) and the tension that builds to it, there's a show-stopping fight in the wide sauna of a bathhouse. Nikolai is confronted by two men with knives; he's naked. His utter vulnerability in the situation and the bone-breaking realism that result make for one of the more memorable, uncomfortable, nerve-wracking sequences of combat in a long time.
Despite these occasional flourishes, Eastern Promises is nothing more than your average mob movie. Knight's script has enough clichés and familiar elements (including a not-so-surprising twist that puts the whole thing in a moralizing light) to continue my suspicion of this new, more accessible version of Cronenberg that everyone seems to love.
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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