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A midwife (Naomi Watts) gets pulled into London's Russian mob subculture, where she meets Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen).

Movie Info

Guide Pick

STARRING

Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel and Armin Muller-Stahl

DIRECTOR

David Cronenberg

RATING


language, violence, nudity, sexual content

RUN TIME

100 minutes

LINKS

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Eastern Promises

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Movie Review

Watch the trailer
• Story: Interview with David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen
• Story: 'Promises' woos Toronto fans

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 expectations.

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 entered.

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. Mortensen's Nikolai.

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 right.

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 to love.

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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© 2007, The Dallas Morning News, Inc.