September 11, 2007

Eastern Promises

Directed by David Cronenberg Starring Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

The biggest surprise in Eastern Promises isn’t grotesque graphic violence, a peek at Viggo Mortensen’s naughty bits, or a cleaver plot twist. For David Cronenberg fans, it would be the fact that the auteur’s latest is so reminiscent of his last outing, A History of Violence. After all, Cronenberg has been anything but predictable over the years. Not only do both films revolve around the criminal underworld, on a more cerebral level they both deal with duality, role-play and vengeful vigilantism. Without spoiling too much, Eastern Promises plays out exactly like A History of Violence in reverse. Nothing wrong with that, since A History of Violence is such a triumphant meta-thriller.

When a pregnant teenager dies after a C-section, North London midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) tries to locate her family so the newborn won’t become part of the foster care system. Anna stumbles upon a diary written entirely in Russian, and tracks down the owner of a posh trans-Sibirian restaurant (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who overeagerly volunteers to translate it for her. Coincidentally, Anna has a Russian-born uncle (Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski) who will faithfully reveal the teenager’s ordeal with the sinister Organizatsiya, Vory v zakone.

The casting of Mortensen as a Russian thug is a no-brainer, especially considering the parallels between his roles here and in A History of Violence. Eastern Promises does allow him a showier presence, with the tattoos, the Russian accent and the killer charisma.

Cronenberg again makes an understated film with disturbing outbursts of brutality splattered throughout. The auteur has staged the gory scenes in such a deadpan way, viewers will find the over-the-top bloodshed both revolting and funny at the same time. But while A History of Violence’s happy ending came off as ironic, the one in Eastern Promises seems somewhat absurd. Screenwriter Steve Knight is most likely the one to blame, considering his Oscar-nominated script for Dirty Pretty Things has some of the same problems. Both films have intriguing and gritty premises, but Knight is never sure what to do with them. Still, Cronenberg does his best and puts his auteurist stamp on Eastern Promises, turning it into an admirable companion piece to A History of Violence.

© Copyright 2007 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.