Eastern Promises [Blu-ray]
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Viggo Mortensen and Academy Award® nominee Naomi Watts star in this electrifying thriller from critically acclaimed director David Cronenberg (A History of Violence). Criminal mastermind Nikolai (Mortensen) finds his ties to a notorious crime family shaken when he crosses paths with Anna (Watts), a midwife who has accidentally uncovered evidence against them. Their unusual relationship sets off an unstoppable chain of murder, mystery and deception in the explosive film critics are calling "provocative and engrossing" (Claudia Puig, USA Today).
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I'm happy to say that the Blu-Ray preserves all of those visual felicities. Whether or not you like the movie itself, however, is a matter of your own choice. Cronenberg has thrown around terms like "ultra-realistic" and "existentialist" to describe this film, but it seems to me Eastern Promises is naturalistic in the extreme. Characters are products of environment and heredity. "Slaves give birth to slaves," Mortenson's character says at one point.
The question Cronenberg confronts is whether or not in such a bleak and harsh social environment individuals can preserve dignity and free will. Cronenberg's answer seems to be yes. After Mortenson's brutal sex scene with the Ukrainian girl, Cronenberg poses and lights the girl's naked body to emphasize dignity and beauty even though we've watched her degradation only moments before. At the end, Naomi Watts and her mother and uncle form a surrogate family for young Christina. Life might demolish the traditional biological and nuclear family, but human will and compassion can assemble a new one. On the other side, we get Akim's mentally challenged nephew, an innocent who is corrupted and killed with no mercy and forgiveness. Cronenberg admits some hope, but for right now, sees mostly struggle and suffering.
The tattoos are the most famous image from this movie, but I think the most horrific and concise image is the dissection of the corpse's fingertips. Fingerprints are a physical sign of identity. To mutilate and destroy them is an effective symbol of how heredity and environment cripple and mutilate a person's inner identity.
Like I said before, you will need to decide for yourself if this movie is for you. It's typical Cronenberg: lots of intelligence at the center with lots of gore and violence spread over the top. I like it very much and admire it more with every viewing.
So, going in order: Armin Mueller-Stahl is one of those actors that you would recognize if you saw him in a movie, but might not remember his name. He usually does a decent job, but here he was outstanding. He made being authoritative and menacing look so effortless. Vincent Cassel also did an excellent job as his ne'er-do-well son. He brought a sleazy quality to his character that made him really unlikeable, but at the same time pitiful. Then there's Viggo Mortensen, who I think gives his best performance to date here as Nikolai, the driver with a mysterious past. He is soft-spoken, but also has a certain amount of gravitas which adds weight to his performance. Finally, Naomi Watts is serviceable as the nurse who gets in over her head. I wouldn't say she was at the level of the other members of the cast, but she didn't stick out too much.
Story-wise, the film was rather restrained. It continued Cronenberg's recent trend of letting his body horror elements take a backseat and letting the drama unfold in a more conventional way. There aren't any earthshaking twists, but there are a few welcome surprises. What I liked, even though it could have been explored more fully, is the roles of tattoos in Russian mafia culture. Overall, I enjoyed that aspect of the film the most. There was also some of Cronenberg's trademark graphic violence, punctuated in a couple short but effective scenes. However, the centerpiece of the film is a fight in a bathhouse between Viggo Mortensen and some Chechen gangsters. Most impressive is that he does it completely in the nude with his tattoos in full view, making it a character-building moment as well as a thrilling fight scene.
Overall, while it dials back on what Cronenberg made his name doing, it is an interesting story with excellent performances across the board. I'm still not sure what the title has to do with the story as a whole, other than Russians are from Eastern Europe, but for what it's worth I liked it a lot. Save for the narrative being a little too divided at times, this new "conventional" Cronenberg works, and I enthusiastically recommend it.
Another film that calls out for a sequel, lots of unanswered questions
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