Eastern Promises

October, 2007, Thriller

Directed by:David Cronenberg

Starring:Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, and Armin Mueller-Stahl

Given America’s current, (and historically recurring) obsession with illegal immigration, this craftily-executed thriller by Canadian wunderkind David Cronenberg, (History of Violence, Dead Ringers) heightens the tension of its plot by relying on an unstated message buried deep inside the text - - aliens, especially the human variety, are as frightening as the demented creatures that appear in the director’s well-known horror films, Scanners and The Fly

Screenwriter Steven Knight, (whose script for Dirty Pretty Things garnered an Oscar Nomination three years ago) returns to the murky, rain- slicked streets of London to examine the subject of international trafficking in young girls for the sex trade. While Promises ultimately lacks the honesty and impact of Swedish director Lukas Moodysson’s Lylia 4 Ever, Cronenberg, Knight and male lead Vigo Mortensen deliver a crime drama bristling with compulsively watch able performances, clever plot twists and the director’s patented depictions of stomach-churning brutality. This one is definitely not for the faint of heart.

When a nondescript teenaged girl goes into childbirth and collapses in a London pharmacy, she’s rushed to a hospital where Anna, (Naomi Watts) the nurse assigned to assist at her delivery, watches helplessly as the young mother dies giving birth. Having just lost a child of her own, Anna feels compelled to track down the baby girl’s surviving relatives using its mother’s diary, which leads Anna to a lavish restaurant owned by Semyon, (Armin Muller-Stall) an avuncular paterfamilias as adept at master-minding London’s Russian-immigration rackets as he is at making borscht. Semyon denies any knowledge of the girl but ominously insists that Anna surrender the diary so he can see to it that the baby is returned to its kinsmen.

But this newborn isn’t the only threat to Semyon’s criminal empire; his son Kirill, (Vincent Cassel) desperate to emulate his ferocious father, arranges a rival’s assassination without obtaining Semyon’s permission and then uses Nikolai, his driver, to cover up the crime. Nikolai’s efforts on Kirill’s behalf appear straightforward, but they have the effect of making the heavily tattooed chauffer a pawn in Semyon’s plan to placate the relatives of Krill’s victim. But before that trap is sprung, the crime boss insists that Nikolai kill Anna’s uncle in an effort to intimidate her into surrendering the diary. Yet is this taciturn wheelman simply what he appears to be?

Cronenberg’s cinematography remains as blunt as his characters; the camera in Promises confronts even as it displays, daring the audience to find fault with the offhanded brutality of the film’s characters. This is the way violence works, the director implies; swiftly, heartlessly and with unspeakable cruelty…and those who inflict it obviously fascinate this filmmaker’s often macabre sensibilities. 

As Semyon, Muller-Stall provides yet another quietly nuanced performance in a crucial supporting role; this 77 year-old Prussian actor has over 125 screen performances to his credit in a career spanning more than half a century. His ability to convey warmth, charm and evil simultaneously make him the perfect Soviet version of Brando’s aging Sicilian crime boss in The Godfather, by turns supremely attractive and utterly repugnant. Unfortunately, Cassel doesn’t impress as the loquacious Kirill; the part calls for someone capable of manically strutting a macho toughness at odds with what just might be a homosexual orientation and the part is simply too complex for this otherwise competent actor. He struggles to match the perfect pitch found in both Muller-Stall and Mortensen’s performances and they simply blow him off the screen. As Anna, Watts has little to do but wring her hands and deliver doe-eyed glances; she does it well enough, but it’s a curiously insignificant part for such an exceptional talent. As her mother however, Sinead Cusack invests her brief scenes with precisely the kind of fiery determination the script suggests Anna herself should possess.

The trajectory of Cronenberg’s films could be a case study in auteur theory; time and again he returns to the human predilection for violence, whether acted-upon or merely observed; the seeds of Eastern Promises can be clearly found in his preceding movie, A History of Violence and it is surely no accident that Mortensen features prominently in both, suggesting that the director has found his muse. At 49, Mortensen still displays the effortless physicality that’s been a hallmark of so many of his four dozen roles. His Nikolai becomes a constantly menacing presence and the actor knows that in this Russian gangster, he’s got a career-shaping role. He manipulates Kirill, outmaneuvers Semyon and longs wistfully for Anna with equal skill and credibility; it will be tough to ignore his performance come Oscar time.

The verdict?  Promises may not deliver profound insights into its subject matter, but it certainly does deliver flair and genuine excitement.    




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