Eastern Promises ****
Directed by David Cronenberg
Written by Steven Knight
Viggo Mortensen as Nikolai
Naomi Watts as Anna
Vincent Cassel as Kirill
Armin Mueller-Stahl as Semyon
96 Minutes(Rated R for strong brutal and bloody violence, some graphic sexuality, language and nudity. )
I don't really think that David Cronenberg's thriller "Eastern Promises" will last the fall movie season to end up on my top ten of the year list, but it is quite an engrossing, perfectly acted, and masterfully directed piece of work that I've seen since. . . well Cronenberg's last film "A History of Violence." Well, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but having seen his last two films, and only a tiny handful of his earlier work, I must say that I had the same impression of him during "Violence" that I did here. He makes directing look like the easiest thing in the world. It really comes as such a natural talent for him, and the best word that I could think of while watching both "A History of Violence" and "Eastern Promises" was that his directing techniques were very "smooth." By smooth I mean that there are no awkward transitions, no odd camera angles-he keeps it quite simple without getting too flashy, but there is always something important going on on the screen.
Now Cronenberg himself has asked the real critics to refrain from too much plot in their reviews, and even though I'm not an actual critic, I might as well do what he asked of them. I wouldn't want to spoil much anyway. This is the kind of film where less is more, and the trailers and television ads don't really say much anyway. Suffice to say that the film takes place in Russia where we are introduced to Anna, played by Naomi Watts. Anna works as a nurse and when a fourteen year old girl comes into the hospital, delivers a baby and dies, Anna finds that she was keeping a diary. The diary is in Russian and since Anna has problems with the language she brings it to Semyon to translate. Semyon's son Kirill works in this Russian crime organization, and he is doing jobs with the driver Nikolai, played by Cronenberg buddy Viggo Mortensen.
That is pretty much the best set up I can give-enough to say that the film takes plenty of twists and turns along the way, and even with such a short running time Cronenberg manages to keep strong tension throughout. Even when you think everything is alright, it certainly is not. Mortensen is fantastic here, and will clearly never be type casted as Aragorn from "The Lord of the Rings." He has a rather innocent bad guy thing going on-while he is someone you clearly would never want to cross, at the same time he always looks like he is either learning or may have a little bit of heart in there. Watts is on target here, and Vincent Cassel plays a great scumbag, but its Armin Mueller-Stahl, as the king of the crime syndicate, who may give the best performance in the film. Mean but also kind hearted, the kindness does not come natural to his character. He is just pretending half of the time to be a nice guy.
While "A History of Violence" had it's family values in tact, it was mostly a commentary on violence aside from having things to say about marriage and being a father, etc. This film also revolves around family. If you look at the difference between the family that the Watts character has-basically a mother and a rather racist uncle-and then you look at the "family" imposed by the crime syndicate-both being rather broken and even a little empty, maybe not even that real. This creates quite a parallel between the characters played by Mortensen and Watts, and even though the subplot with the diary is really a very loose plot that ends up just leading into something more, it does not make the Watts character a pointless plot device. It makes her a little more real. Not every conflict has to escalate into a gripping conclusion, but this conflict ends up forming into something else. You'll see what I mean when you see the film, but the diary is really just the introduction to something more. I think this is why Cronenberg focused on that aspects in the commercials, because with it he was never giving much away. "Eastern Promises" is a terrific thriller, and less obvious with the commentary-and Howard Shore's musical score-than "History of Violence" was. I feel like I should see this one a few more times to get more of the subtle bits that are scattered everywhere. It's real good stuff.