Monday, December 31, 2007

Eastern Promises

I’ve long been a fan of David Cronenberg’s work, from his older sci-fi/horror works (I’m eagerly awaiting the day Shivers gets re-released) to his recent crop of vicious, award-winning dramas. Compared to his last effort, A History of Violence, this is a bit more restrained, but even here we see a bunch of men seething with barely controlled anger for most of the film, just waiting for the right opportunity to explode.

The film stars Viggo Mortensen as a fairly high-ranking member of the Russian Mafia operating in London, and Naomi Watts, as the daughter of Russian immigrants who finds a teenage girl with a dark past who soon dies in childbirth. The dead girl leaves her with a diary that connects Mortensen’s boss to drugs, kidnapping, and rape, and soon Watts is barreling into a world that she would have been much wiser to stay well clear of, all for the sake (so she says) of the baby.

What’s interesting about the film is in how nobody really turns out to be who they initially claim to be. Every character is hiding his or her own secrets, some of which are never really uncovered. Mortensen keeps making sure it’s known that he’s “just a driver”, even though all the Mafia higher ups hold him in high regard. The head of the family keeps saying that as long as his minions are honest with him, they’ll be okay, even though he and they know full well that they have no recourse but to constantly plot his doom. Even Watts, who keeps going on about how she just wants the baby cared for, seems to actively be daring them to come at her for reasons that are never explained. The film is slow paced, and yet crackles with hidden tensions at every moment, and these tensions only increase as more and more secrets are exposed. I said earlier that the violence was pretty restrained, and for a Cronenberg film it is, but even here it opens with a throat being slit and has a climax with Mortensen struggling with two assassins in a sauna (note for the ladies: you do indeed get to see his dingaling during the fight, and yes, it was a tad awkward when my mom got home from church halfway through that scene). It’s one of the best films Cronenberg has made so far, and I say this as someone who was already a big fan. You’d be well advised to check it out.

Rating: *** ½

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