Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Eastern Promises (2007)

By Eric Jessen 7/7/09

Suspense builds beneath the surface even with the occasional sudden eruption of savage violence. Viggo Mortensen as Nikolai struts and shrugs and nods his head with a sadistic nonchalance. David Cronenberg is not as creative as in Vidiodrome or Crash, more traditional, but also more stylish, more calm and more likable for the modern audience. The stylishness is mostly thanks to Mortensen. Many wouldn't call Eastern Promises or his recent History of Violence calm because the bloodshed can be hard to stomach. But Cronenberg's recent movies are calm because they deal with realistic characters and subjects.
The subject in this case is the Russian Mafia in London. A Mafia that is new and sexy. The strange foreign language is fresh. The tattoos that mark their deathly accomplishments are twisted yet glamorous. We're all tired of the Italian Mafia anyway. Some of the new Mafia's style we are familiar with like the greased up hair, the so called language of subtleties (secret code like “the coast is clear,” plus nods, winks...), along with the low brow manipulation and ruthlessness. The central characters are actually somewhat boring on the surface. There is a half Russian half British midwife Anna(Naomi Watts) who “just cares about the baby,” poor and helpless as it is, that was left behind by a dead Mafia prostitute. And there is also a Mafia chauffeur Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) who has some other yucky jobs as well. The characters are only interesting because of Mortensen's and Watts' brilliant acting. There is something deliciously evil about Mortensen's appearance and demeanor. But at the same time, when it comes to women, of course he's capable of humility. As for Watts, she just seems down right exhausted with everything. It gives her character a feeling of desperation, like she is unbelievably needy. She is helping an orphan baby, but she needs it as much as it needs her. She can't be in her right mind when she is dealing with the Mafia. She is supposed to be just “an ordinary person,” doesn't she know the Mafia is dangerous?
Part of me wishes David Cronenberg was still making insanely creative and inventive movies. And I know they aren't as lucrative, but there are not enough movies like that being made today. But oh well, these movies are fun. I love it when movies can accentuate the coolness of evil characters, as sick as that may sound. Plus, I was totally immersed in the story.
My only problem with this movie is that, go figure, Mortensen turns out to be a good guy all along. He played the seductive villain perfectly, why does he need to turn out to be good? At least, in the end, it's not like he's Mister Rogers good, he's still pretty bad. You have to be a little perverted to be an undercover rat.
Eastern Promises is a little good, a little bad, a little crazy, mostly realistic, always stylish and always fun.

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