Monday, April 6, 2009

Eastern Promises (2007) A Film by David Cronenberg

In David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises, Viggo Mortensen says he's "just a driver". However, there is a charismatic coolness on the surface of his Nikolai that disguises the tight rope of loyalties he must balance towards his fellow Russian mobsters and towards Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife required to handle a dying woman during childbirth whose diary of heinous chronicles leads her directly to the Vory V Zakone (the old-world Russian mafia stationed in London). The film marks the second straight pairing of Cronenberg and Mortensen, and while it may represent a slightly more commercial bent than what is expected of Cronenberg, the fusion is tantalizing.

Mortensen is outstanding as the chauffeur Nikolai, mustering up believable Russian mannerisms to coincide with his phlegmatic Russian accent. The intricate tattoos covering his chest (standing in as Cronenberg's motif for his characteristic interest in the human body) detail years of unwieldy criminal experience, but by the same token, he possesses a sliver of humanity that proves, in the end, enough to break his calculated, know-it-all smugness. Through the mob victim's diary, which must be translated with some difficulty for Anna, she learns that it was the Vory who was responsible for the trafficking crimes and that the father of the baby is likely Kirill (Vincent Cassel, who recalls Reinhold from Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz), the drunkard son of the crime lord Semyon.

Watts' character stands in for the audience, jostled from the ordinary life she leads with her parents after a damaging divorce to investigate the story of the woman. She is inevitably lured into the subculture of the mafia, partly out of a confident search for justice but perhaps also out of a mysterious curiosity further propounded by Mortensen's swaggering allure. Her parents, and most specifically her brutish father (played by Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski), dissuade her from getting involved with the mob or attempting to swing any deals.

Although Anna's story is an essential plot element, taking us within the Vory V Zakone in the first place, the triptych of Nikolai, Kirill, and Semyon is the crux of the film. Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is the ubiquitous, dominating figure who manages to dodge a crime boss caricature, resulting instead in a seemingly benevolent restaurant owner who unleashes quiet intensity behind closed doors. He is most often angered by his suspicion of Kirill's homosexuality, and to a degree there is indeed pent up homoeroticism imbued in the film. Kirill frequently accuses Nikolai of being a queer, but at the same time hangs on desperately during their embraces. He is also expedient in his willingness to order Nikolai around forcefully (he is the upper hand), likely aroused by a jealousy that stems from Semyon's preference of Nikolai to him. Therefore, there are oedipal as well as erotic impulses that are repressed or projected elsewhere for Kirill.

Eastern Promises is successfully as much of a textured ensemble study as it is a shockingly violent, searingly tense portrait of the Russian mob in London. It has been suggested by some that Cronenberg has lost intrigue as a director due to his excursion into more "mainstream" fare, but what A History of Violence and Eastern Promises make up is a new development in Cronenberg's career, one that favors measured pacing over the freewheeling bizarreness that typifies his earlier Sci-Fi work. The film is by no means a commercial film as far as I'm concerned; the only real outbreak of elongated violence occurs during a brilliantly staged bathhouse sequence - which features a nude Mortensen held at knife-point by two shady figures - and it eschews the pounding music that may have accompanied the scene under the wing of a generic director. In fact, the scene would not have been considered by another director in the first place. Eastern Promises is by all accounts a Cronenberg film, still withholding the ability to make an audience squirm and think at the same time.

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