Sunday, April 4, 2010

Archive: "Eastern Promises" (2007)

A man gets his throat slit, and shortly after, a woman stumbles into a pharmacy saying she needs help as there is a puddle of blood accumulating at her feet. This murder and hemorrhaging is how "Eastern Promises" opens, a movie that begins with a shock and never lets up. It's a thriller from director David Cronenberg, who also directed 2005's "A History of Violence"; he knows a thing or two about the horrors of human nature, and he has an inexplicable ability to link the brutality with the beautiful. The pregnant woman in the film is actually a 14-year-old girl who gets raped and dies during the delivery of a blood-covered fetus. This newborn baby becomes the central focus in the eyes of the characters where, throughout the streets of London, there lurks an underground Russian mob that has emigrated there and brought an entire crime family with them.

The baby is delivered in a hospital by a midwife named Anna (Naomi Watts). She is determined to protect the child and therefore begins a search for any ancestors of the now dead mother. She finds a diary on the body that leads her to a restaurant owned by Semyon, who happens to be the head of the mafia family, Vory V Zakone. Anna talks with Semyon about the woman, the baby, and the diary, and she explains everything to him not realizing exactly who she may be dealing with.

Anna lives with her mother and uncle, and although he helps to translate the diary, her uncle severely warns Anna not to get involved with those people because they are capable of unthinkable acts. These acts of which are soon discovered in shocking detail within the dead mother's diary. Secrets are revealed, and things start getting complicated when the importance of the diary, the innocent midwife, and the mafia family all become intertwined. All Anna cares about is the baby, and she quickly discovers that both her life and the baby's life are in danger.

Semyon has a behaviorally violent son named Kirill, and there's also a loyal driver and bodyguard named Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). Nikolai is the key player here as he is trusted by both Semyon and Kirill. He is also trusted by Anna only because she feels required to trust him. He's the best there is in this world she has delved into; she senses something about him, just as the rest of us watching him do. As we follow the slowly winding and unraveling plot, what becomes so brilliant is that it isn't about the who or the what. It becomes entirely about the why, and why people do things, and how they react and recoil and double-cross, and how everybody has the same expectations of each other and how those expectations get twisted right back around. It takes a while to fully understand this why aspect because of a surprise near the end, but I have already given away far too much.

Naomi Watts is as lovely as she always is, but it's definitely Viggo Mortensen who runs the show providing us with his absolutely best performance yet, deserving of serious awards consideration. No, he isn't Russian, but don't let that for a second allow you worry about whether or not he pulls off the accent. He digs within himself and dives so deeply into the role that you'll have a hard time even recognizing him at first. He is tough-as-nails and has an eerie stillness about him, but he also has much more to him than what he wishes for others to see; underneath that cover of body tattoos is a haunted man. Mortensen single-handedly adds a layer of morality to an already accomplished thriller, and Cronenberg himself even admits that "Eastern Promises" would not be the same movie without this actor on the screen.

And then there's the movie's key scene: It involves a fight in a steam bathhouse where Nikolai, completely naked, fends off two blade-wielding enemies. He steals their weapons from them and lunges at them with stab after stab. In a time when fight scenes in movies are mostly derivative, this one stands a step above and is so visceral and in-the-moment, you have to see it to believe it. It's in this scene that the movie's use of violence is most evident as a tool for building suspense to an almost unbearable level; there is a searing brutality here that is heart-pounding and breath-taking. We see Viggo Mortensen's character as a paradox of a man split between the human nature of good and evil. He dishes out so much violent destruction, it could only be seen as bad, but this is right as we are seeing it being used towards justice and what is good.

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