Violence has always been a popular staple of the movies. When violence starts to lose its potency, there always seems to be a creative director to bring it back to vibrant life. Arthur Penn in Bonnie & Clyde (1967), Sam Peckinpah in The Wild Bunch (1969), Marty Scorsese in Taxi Driver (1976), Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction (1994), et al., brought pain and impact back to violence. There's always a director who decides it's time to restore power and human feeling to violence. Today's films may need such a director. In today's films violence is often comic and garish -- it's video games and graphic novels.
Along comes director David Cronenberg. He is a director who sets out to bring life (and death) back to violence. In Eastern Promises he does just that. It is a movie that will make audiences squirm and look away.
Eastern Promises is only 100 minutes, and it's not end-to-end violence. But when it is violent, it is memorably, humanly violent.
It's a different take. Its violence is abrupt, visceral, and punishing. It has all kinds of menace. (One interesting note: count how many times guns are fired.)
If you see Eastern Promises, see if you look away. I'll bet you do. If not, at least you'll blink.
Eastern Promises is the tale of a midwife (Naomi Watts) at a London hospital, who finds an incriminating diary in the belongings of a young woman who dies in childbirth. A leader of the Russian Mafia in London (Armin Mueller-Stahl) wants to retrieve the revealing book. He enlists his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and his son's driver and enforcer Nikola Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen) in his efforts. Deceit, revenge, and violence erupt.
Director Cronenberg is one of a kind. He always has been fascinated by violence, sex, and doppelgangers (split personalities). Cronenberg's best film Dead Ringers (1988) probably was too esoteric for a mass audience. Other Cronenberg films, such as Spider (2002), certainly were. But recently Cronenberg has become more commercial. The History of Violence (2005), which he directed, was more accessible for audiences and did well at the box office. Now Eastern Promises appears as though it will be a commercial success.
Cronenberg has found an actor who seems ideal for his vision. Viggo Mortensen is strong, sexy and enigmatic. As Nikolai Luzhin in Eastern Promises, he is lethal and unpredictable. He seems to know something the rest of us don't.
Naomi Watts has a neurotic quality that meshes well with the stolid Mortensen. Her Anna Khitrova is stubborn but vulnerable, which adds to the palpable anxiety.
Armin Mueller-Stahl has a perverse charm as the soft-spoken Mafia leader. And Vincent Cassell is effective as the out-of-control, squirrelly son.
Steve Knight, who did the screenplay for Dirty Pretty Things, has a patent on the dark, corrupt side of London. Cronenberg creates an ambience of bleakness and dark rain. The Canadian director shot the film in England.
Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky and production designer Denise Cronenberg contribute mightily to the compelling look of the film.
Eastern Promises ends abruptly. One expects more violent scenes to come, but Cronenberg has made his point. He doesn't need to repeat himself as so many contemporary films do.
Despite ending suddenly, Eastern Promises remains in the memory long after one has left the theater. As violence and humanity should.
For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).
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