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Eastern Promises an Unsettling Look at Human Intentions

Mark Witte | Friday, September 28, 2007

If we had Viggo Mortensen on the line for pocket protection, Jimmy Clausen would never get sacked.

In Eastern Promises, director David Cronenberg (“A History of Violence,” “The Fly”) reunites with Mortensen to draw us into the violent world of underground London crime, where throats are slit, people disappear and a henchman mysteriously helps a damsel in distress.

When Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) stumbles upon the diary of a dying prostitute while delivering the girl’s daughter, she enters a world of trouble. Attached to the child for personal reasons, Anna becomes intent on discovering more about the history of the baby’s mother. She tries to have the diary translated, ending up on the doorstep of restaurant owner Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who just so happens to be the head of a ruthless Russian mob – the Vory V. Zakone. (The mob’s name might not sound very scary on the paper, but whenever it is mentioned in the film, all the characters quickly shut up.)

Not everything goes as planned, and it turns out the diary contains some incriminating entries about Semyon and his ruthlessly stupid son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel). Kirill is not a terribly intelligent human being, and he does an excellent job of complicating the plot by whacking a family associate Soyka (Aleksandar Mikic). Luckily for him, he has Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) as his driver and bodyguard.

Nikolai is undoubtedly one of the most mysterious, badass characters you may ever see on the big screen. He becomes acquainted with Anna and helps her throughout the film, but it becomes difficult to tell whether he is helping her for her benefit or manipulating her other reasons because he keeps such a mysterious cool. At one point Anna asks him how he can do what he does. His causal response: “I’m just a driver.”

The film climaxes when Soyka’s family comes to town looking for retribution, Semyon starts making demands of Anna, and the dead prostitute’s baby suddenly disappears.

Cronenberg’s latest work is not an action movie, but the film is not short on violence. There are no shootouts, but Cronenberg’s uncanny ability to make his violence brutally realistic causes the few short scenes of killing we do witness to be more disturbing than many recent World War II epics. There is one particular scene in which Nikolai fights his way out of a sauna, that is so viciously scarring, audiences’ retinas may never recover.

While the plot seems to resolve itself a bit too easily, the acting performances are a treat.

The transformation Mortensen makes for his role is so convincing that it may take you twenty or thirty minutes to realize that it is actually him you are seeing on the screen. The true delight he brings to his performance is the way he pulls off a character whose nature is shrouded in mystery, yet so fascinating in its allure.

Mueller-Stahl does an eerily remarkable job playing a character who pretends to be a gentle grandfather while setting in motion cruel and ruthless plans for the preservation of his family. Watts’ performance as the courageous midwife who wants only to protect a motherless infant is compelling, but she is largely overshadowed by Mortensen.

Almost none of the story focuses on the business of the mob; rather, Cronenberg chooses to examine the nature of his characters. In doing so he asks a number of questions about the dark alleyways of human intention and even takes us down a number of them.

The final shot of the film is an unsettling, yet beautiful zoom that moves in slowly on Mortensen’s character, as if it is probing into Nikolai’s mysterious nature, but Cronenberg only lets us get so close. To take us any further, might be to grapple too much in the dark