21 September 2007 | DonFishies
Cronenberg and Mortensen deliver in one unmissably solid thriller
When I first saw the trailer for Eastern Promises, I was a little confused. Yes, A History of Violence was a complete turnaround style picture for David Cronenberg (whose previous films include the most twistedly eccentric visions of horrendously graphic violence and overtly over sexualized human beings and monsters), but I had not expected that he would continue down the path of the "independent mainstream". I was a little hesitant to see it at first, but gradually the trailer's imagery drew me in. And now I can say there really is a reason for the Oscar buzz.
There really is no way to perfectly describe Eastern Promises without giving a few juicy details away. It revolves around a Russian crime circuit in London, headed by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), and includes his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and Kirill's driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife, gets involved within the circuit unknowingly when she attempts to get a diary, recently left by a teenage mother who died during childbirth, translated from Russian into English.
The plot is really not that complicated, but giving a full description ruins the little idiosyncrasies and poignant character moments shared within the film. Oscar-nominee Steve Knight has constructed a gritty, atmospheric thriller that starts up quick and then slows down to a nice steady pace, just so the audience can catch its breath and brood over the workings of the cast. It is dialogue driven, but when it is not being sly or darkly comedic, it plays out like an opera. We gradually learn all the intimate details of every sketchy character, and we get a deeper sense of just how bad some of these characters are. It is not just a paint-by-numbers depiction of bad men, it is a highly detailed and clearly articulate character study. And even at its dullest moments, it works excellently.
Kudos also goes to Cronenberg's go to cinematographer, Peter Suschitsky. London and its drab and depressing climate are beautifully represented here from the first frame, all the way up to the last. Even when the sun is out, the sets have a certain subdued haze over them. We are watching a film about the criminal underbelly, and its settings help reflected just how low these people are in their moral standings. It works greatly in favour of the film, and it almost works as a character in itself. The drab, almost noir, settings help achieve the dirty politics of the film, and they help explore the character studies even further. Whether it's the scariness of watching Mortensen in the dark, or just looking at the glare of Mueller-Stahl in his dimmed restaurant, all of the details have been amped up on each set to give the audience a greater sense of understanding and purpose, for just about every character.
And what Cronenberg film would be without some bizarrely violent visuals? While not exactly a bloodbath, Cronenberg does have a few moments where he paints the screen a bright shade of scarlet red. And when it begins to flow, there is nothing that can really stop it. It works much in the same way as it did in Violence, in that the film builds to a scene loaded with it and just lets loose in a ferocious manner unlike any well-known director currently working in the mainstream on movies that are not specifically horror (with obvious exceptions to Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez). It has that Cronenbergian touch, and much like his other films, its style is impeccable and thought-provoking.
Another fantastic element is the score by Howard Shore. It slows when it needs to, and it quickens even faster. It plays out wonderfully throughout the scenes, and gives them a sort of classy feel. I realize I used the opera description before, but it fits even better here. Its great workings underpin every scene, and help dictate just how well off the film is.
What hurts the film (besides some very bizarre choices by Watts' character) is the denouement. It works, but I just cannot fathom how neither Knight nor Cronenberg thought it was appropriate for the story that was taking place. It just does not have the solid impact that every other scene either has, or builds to. I sat, almost dumbfounded, trying to figure out who thought it was a good idea, and why no one told them to re-write it. But I will say, much like Violence, Promises has an absolutely stunning final moment. But to get to that astounding moment, you have to sit through a rather disappointing finale.
If you thought you had seen Mortensen's best work before Promises, then you will be in for a very big surprise. His cold and calculating performance as Nikolai is the stuff that creates legends. He is menacing from the word go, and even as the enigmatic slowly becomes the well-known, you will just stare in fear and awe as he speaks on screen. From the terrifying tattoos, to a small character moment where he puts out a cigarette on his tongue, Mortensen is the quintessential image of evil. His unrestrained anger is felt throughout the film, and hopefully, will be just the right performance to launch him into the stratosphere of Oscar-nominated actors. Even during the let-down of an ending, he keeps up, and never lets anyone down.
The rest of the cast, albeit nowhere near as strong as Mortensen, are all very good supporting characters. Watts' character may have issues, but she breathes a certain life into the naïve character that I doubt many others could match. Much the same goes for Cassel and Mueller-Stahl, who bring just the right amount of intensity to their roles.
Although it is flawed, Cronenberg has delivered yet another exceptional thriller. It will surely be recognized at Oscar time, and for good reason too. Do not miss it.