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By CHRIS VOGNAR / Movie Critic
Nikolai Luzhin is a marked man. Covered in the tattoos that define the
allegiances and hierarchy of Russian prison culture, he's like Ray
Bradbury's Illustrated Man (or the average NBA player), only more
dangerous. As played by Viggo Mortensen in David Cronenberg's new
thriller Eastern Promises, Nikolai is scarily enigmatic, not as
monstrous as his cohorts but seemingly devoid of emotion or motive.
This is the second recent Cronenberg-Mortensen collaboration, following
on the mischievous heels of A History of Violence. The films
share themes of ambiguous identity and rage-soaked duality; both have a
lock-step precision and both take a sly kind of joy in subverting genre
Mr. Cronenberg started his career by exploring the limits of bodily
horror in films such as Shivers and The Brood, but those
horrors were usually a manifestation of some internal unrest. Now the
internal has taken precedence, leaving most of the gore behind. The
filmmaker is still interested in blood, but it now comes quickly,
spasmodically, and it's shed on the battleground of moral conflict.
The innocent of this tale is Anna (Naomi Watts), a London midwife living
with her mother and uncle. She gets pulled into London's Russian mob
subculture when a teenage girl dies during childbirth, leaving a diary
behind. The midwife brings the diary home, where her racist uncle (Jerzy
Skolimowski) opens it and finds good reason for Anna to quash her
curiosity. The dead girl was involved with some bad people, namely the
Vory V Zakone crime family, whose orbit Anna has already unwittingly
Where some may see melodrama, Mr. Cronenberg locates timeless, elemental
struggles between good and evil, right and wrong. But he makes sure to
place a mysterious gray area front and center, personified here by Mr.
We don't really know who this guy is: He drives the family honcho's
hothead son (Vincent Cassel, the fire to Mr. Mortensen's ice) and
disposes of the occasional body, but he plays his cards extremely close
to the chest. This makes Anna think she can trust him, and she might be
The film's genius performance belongs to the venerable Armin
Mueller-Stahl, who plays the family head with a twinkling eye and an air
of avuncular, Old World charm.
He's the ultimate smiling villain, a shrewd tyrant with a practiced
public face and a capacity for evil that knows no bounds.
His cold cruelty extends to his son, whose impulsive ways prove an
inconvenience and an embarrassment, so it's no surprise when the boss
takes a liking to the less-expressive Nikolai.
The sibling rivalry is played out in some quietly devastating sequences
that allow Mr. Cassel to display his range, from pride to pain to anger
Eastern Promises is a little too mechanical for its own good.
Despite the tasty enigma of Mr. Mortensen, it sometimes feels as if Mr.
Cronenberg is working from a diagram: A clicks into B into C.
But the mechanics also produce an admirable crispness and sense of
purpose, a sense that the man behind the camera knows exactly what he's
doing at all times.
Like Nikolai, Mr. Cronenberg creates a feeling of controlled fury that
might explode at any moment. A nice young woman has no business mixing
herself up in any of this. Of course, for the sake of the movie, this
means she has to.
Published in The Dallas Morning News: 09.14.07
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