With 2005’s “A History of Violence”, director David Cronenberg created a huge critical success, his first in years. The film landed on most critics’ top 10 lists and he became a director to watch for a whole new generation of moviegoers. His follow-up “Eastern Promises”, an intense drama about a mystery concerning the Russian Mafia, has been receiving all around praise by most critics and recently won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film deserves the praise and with its recent wide release it is finding itself to be a box office success as well.
The film centers on Nikolai Luzhin, (played by Viggo Mortensen who seems to be a Cronenberg favorite now after his amazing role in “Violence”) a driver moving up the ranks of the Vory V Zakone, one of London’s most infamous organized crime families. The family is fathered by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a seemingly kind proprietor of a small Russian restaurant with a brutally unforgiving and cold interior. Semyon’s son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) is more outwardly dangerous and evil than his father but has a strong relationship with Nikolai and therefore feels he must train him into the “real” business. But Nikolai’s world begins to deconstruct once he meets midwife Anna (Naomi Watts). Anna has found herself in a dangerous situation. A young teenager dies while giving birth under her care and in an attempt to find the baby’s family through the mother’s diary she gets sucked into the world of the Vory V Zakone. She becomes a major target when she starts asking Nikolai and Semyon too many questions especially when she finds out the secrets of the diary itself. Nikolai must face his feelings between her and his world and find what must be done to ethically preserve everything he’s worked for.
The film definitely has Cronenberg’s signature visceral style. In one scene that lasts about ten minutes Mortensen’s character finds himself completely naked and fighting for his life against two thugs. The scene is not vulgar or awkward but done in a very artistic way that doesn’t offend its audience. A lot of blood is spilt in this film, and Cronenberg does not hold back and in full style he shows everything without going over the edge of taste. In one scene Kirill cuts a man’s throat and instead of just showing the view from behind Vincent Cassel, Cronenberg shows the cut from beginning to end. Still, it doesn’t come across as outwardly disgusting but absolutely necessary. These techniques only make the film (an original story by Stephen Knight) seem more realistic.
Viggo Mortensen’s performance is the reason this film is getting such incredible attention. His character is completely disciplined yet completely dangerous. He doesn’t come across as psychotic, unlike Cassel’s Kirill, but as subdued. There are a few scenes in which Nikolai and Kirill share that show Mortensen’s true talent. As Kirill berates a man, Nikolai just watches with a cool stare that invokes more fear than his partner’s drunken shouting. Like his character in “A History of Violence”, he is not exactly what he seems. Veteran actor Armin Mueller-Stahl has a similar edge to his character and like Mortensen; he changes from good to bad with ease.
There is really only one downside to “Eastern Promises”: it’s not as strong as its performers. If the film had different actors it wouldn’t have made such an outstanding impression. The film has a strong script and a wonderful vision but just comes off as weaker than its stars. 2005’s “Capote” had a similar problem with relying on the talent of the actors to carry the film. Also like that film’s star Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Viggo Mortensen should absolutely receive recognition for his performance later this year during awards season.
While the film isn’t necessarily a conventional film to see in theaters it is a great chance to see something different. “A History of Violence” did not go wide during its release so it is a wonderful opportunity to catch a Cronenberg film, something that doesn’t happen too often. “Eastern Promises” is definitely a film to see. Grade: A-