by GEOFF GEIB
Fresh from the exhilarating A History of Violence, director David Cronenberg returns with a deceptively straightforward tale of the Russian mafia in London. The central preoccupation of the film is the transient nature of identity, a theme Cronenberg returns to time and again in his films.
Eastern Promises is filled with such uncommon grace and intelligence I find I am simply in awe of the skill it took to create such a film. Despite the moments of vivid gore, it is a quiet film layered with startling vigor and depth. Much of the credit must go to the universally excellent cast and writer Steve Knight, whose equally superb script for Dirty Pretty Things created a similarly washed-out London rarely seen by tourists and locals alike.
The movie just burns with unspoken intensity, exemplified by Viggo Mortensen’s assured leading performance. If there is any question the place Mortensen should occupy amongst Hollywood’s leading men following the Lord of the Rings trilogy and his recent collaborations with Cronenberg, it should be permanently laid to rest. Mortensen is a revelation as Nikolai, a soft-spoken man working as a driver for the Russian mob, whose motives and character are shrouded in mist. Mortensen manages a Russian accent with ease, his delivery and mannerisms are pitch-perfect. This is a great actor reaching new heights.
Cronenberg is an ambitious filmmaker, presenting us with intricate characters who struggle with their inner demons while reacting to the demands of the plot. There are no simple answers in Eastern Promises, no easy resolutions. Every scene, every character, builds on one another to create a tenuous world of conjecture and ambiguity. It is a demanding model, challenging the actors and the audience far more than most films.
The movie draws the viewer in by lulling them into a false sense of security with a simple plot and a lack of flashy camera moves. Cronenberg lets the material speak for itself and the big question he’s asking is – who are these people? Every character seems to shift depending on the situation, but whether this is an extension of their personality or a redefinition is never fully answered.
Naomi Watts, pleasantly understated and withdrawn here, presses the point most forcefully when she plaintively asks Nikolai who he is, but when we step back, we see that this question is secondary to her more pressing quest, which is to discover who she is. Only by engaging with this stranger, by grappling with the unknown, can she fully take stock of her own life, her own choices and losses. Whether or not she is conscious of this is left to the viewer’s interpretation, a tactic that breathes life into the film long after the credits roll.
At both screenings of A History of Violence I attended, there was wildly inappropriate laughter during some of the most brutal scenes. Inundated in recent years with movies like Hannibal, in which Anthony Hopkins dines on Ray Liotta’s brain on screen, audiences have become conditioned to the idea that excess is tantamount to humor, regardless of the context. The violence is less pressing in Eastern Promises, and I wonder whether that has less to do with the Cronenberg’s visual aesthetics and more to do with ensuring his audience understood the severity of what was happening.
In what will surely be the most discussed portion of the film, a sequence of such ferocity and audacity that it nearly defies description, Mortenson’s character Nikolai must fend off two knife-wielding assassins in a bath house. What is truly spectacular about this sequence, aside from the staging of it, which must have taken months to prepare and film, is that when all is said and done, we realize it is the only moment in the film when we are watching Nikolai’s true self. At every other time, he is gauging the people and the situation around him, never allowing the viewer complete access.
Fighting for his life, his defenses down, naked in both spirit and form, we catch a glimpse and realize that for all his ambiguity, for all his planning, thought and attention to detail, for every imagined vice and desire that lies hidden behind his carefully planned exterior, this man is a killer. And what can we ever truly know of such a man?