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Ray Pride

By Ray Pride Pride@moviecitynews.com

[Toronto] Eastern Promises (****, 2007)

DAVID CRONENBERG’S LATEST MOVIE IS ABOUT MANY THINGS. Superficially, Eastern Promises is the veteran director’s second gangster thriller, after A History of Violence, and it provides the most succinct definition yet of “balls-out action.” (More on than in a moment, if you haven’t heard too much already.) Eastern Promisesis EP_Viggo_206_6.jpgaudacious in its simplicity and pared-down qualities. There’s so much more here than a stylized Russian mafia story and the fact of contemporary sex slavery. The hard, steely light and pointedly clean geometry Cronenberg and his cinematographer Peter Suschitzsky prefer are in evidence in the opening three scenes, each slimed with a different form of a gush of viscous red that moves like flesh made liquid. A man dies. A child is born. The mother dies. Cronenberg does not fear the display of blood: he’s more concerned with evoking the fear of the susceptibility and defenselessness of the human body against intrusion.
London is mostly night and brackish rain. Anna (Naomi Watts) is a midwife who wants to find the family of the dead girl, who left a daughter and a diary behind, written in Russian. Conveniently, her uncle Stepan (played as a great, gruff boor by Polish film director Jerzy Skolimowski [Deep End]) is Russian and dismisses all of Anna’s own losses and fears until he reads the terrible things in the little book. (Another director, Mike Sarne, of the notorious Myra Breckenridge, also appears, as a character named “Valery Nabokov,” evoking two of Cronenberg’s favorite writers.)
Watts is tremulous, her Anna always alarmed and shot as tiny, vulnerable on her motorcycle coursing through the narrow ways of London with oversized helmet and goggles that make her look like a bug. (The bike had been her Russian father’s, a rarity called a Ural; another bit that will extend.)
A business card leads Anna to a restaurant where the girl may have worked, and whose patriarch, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), is actually a powerful mobster. He has a weak, drunken son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and Kirill’s driver, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) is a taciturn enforcer whose reserve and constant watchfulness allows facts and history to emerge only in rare words and rarer sentences. Often very funny ones: once Mortensen appears, the film morphs into a very black comedy while balancing other fearsome notes. Surely an inside joke is that Mortensen’s hair is an almost comic caricature of Cronenberg’s own tall, stiff mane.)


The storytelling is disorienting at first, with the sturdy cast going through the setup in close-ups and medium shots. The script, by Stephen Knight (screenwriter of Dirty Pretty Things, and creator of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire”) is shot through with lovely, Shakespeare-ish apothegms and epigrams, but it’s a concatenation of blank terse: “You play with a prince to do business with a king”; “There are always open doors”; “Slaves give birth to slaves” and “He offered me stars. I accept.” More like the Cronenberg of body-mod yore is Nikolai’s reflection as he accepts a rite of passage; “Now I live in the zone all the time.”
The pacing grows more startling and increasingly thrilling in the tautness of story and the spirals, emotional and thematic, which eddy outward. Material involving Russian prison tattoos becomes another form of storytelling, added to the history slowly revealed by the dead girl’s voice reciting passages from her diary in posthumous voiceover. “If you don’t have tattoos, you don’t exist,” we learn: the history of the gangsters is written on their flesh by their elders.
There are other lovely, mostly subtle motifs. A bold one is that Anna lost a child herself, and comes to love the child in these few days between Christmas and the New Year. Added to all the other strands, these functions less schematically than as the work of a cinematic poet. The stuff of Eastern Promisesis asserted in the most concrete ways while deeper portent, elusive and hardly specific, rises to the surface in an ultimately touching fashion. The characters’ phrasings, mostly gnomic, become lyrical through repeated variations.
Honor and pride and revenge career out of control. “London! City of howars and kveers!” Semyon sneers after a betrayal. Pounds of flesh may be required. The macho is bulletproof but the body is not. “I’m just a driver,” Nikolai insists. More ominously, “They have just arrived from the mountains” is not what you want to hear regarding a clutch of Chechen hitmen. Their man-on-man mano-a-mano with Nikolai in an archaic steam bath extends Cronenberg’s insistence on action occurring in approximate real time, in wider angles without editing tricks, as in his Crash and A History Of Violence to a staggering extreme: a five-minute sequence of fisticuffs and knives with two leather-jacketed killers while Nikolai is naked exceeds the viscera(l) force of any of the brilliant “body horror” notions in his earlier, more SF-flavored work, such as Videodrome placing a vaginal VHS entry slot into James Woods’ stomach. The threat of puncture by parry is matched by thrusts that threaten sinew, flank, balls, cock. Nikolai’s body is exposed, cut, beaten, violated, like the dead, beaten, cut, raped 15-year-old girl whose voice wafts above all.
There are more turns than alluded to here; the adept feints and dodges in the plotting that are less brusque elision than a demonstrable confidence that belaboring the turns would be a waste of time. Tonally superior to A History of Violence, What begins as a parable about pride becomes a compact masterpiece about compassion. [Ray Pride.]

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