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Movie Review: Eastern Promises

Director David Cronenberg follows up his critical and financial success A History of Violence with another story revolving around mobsters and the innocent victims caught in their worlds.

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by Rene Williams, for outsideleft.com
originally published: September, 2007
This film drips with ultra realistic violence, gloomy ambiance, and enough brilliant acting to make this an academy favorite come Oscar time.

"There is a great streak of violence in every human being.  If it is not channeled and understood, it will break out in war or in madness."  ~Sam Peckinpah

Director David Cronenberg follows up his critical and financial success A History of Violence with another story revolving around mobsters and the innocent victims caught in their worlds. This time the story is set amongst the Russian mafia in London. Eastern Promises (Rated R, 100min) drips with ultra realistic violence, gloomy ambiance, and enough brilliant acting to make this an academy favorite come Oscar time. 

Mid-wife Anna (Naomi Watts) stumbles upon a prostitute's diary in the emergency room as she assists in the birth of her child. Unfortunately the woman dies during the child birth and leaves behind only her Russian written diary to tell her sad story. The London branch of the Russian mob, "vory v zachone", wants the journal back because it implicates the son of mob kingpin Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) in a series of brutal crimes. Viggo Mortenson plays Nikolai, driver/bodyguard to the mob who is given the job of collecting the diary and disposing of those who have read its contents.

Cronenberg fans had mixed feelings over A History of Violence. The majority thought is was too mainstream and played too much to conventional tastes. But I thought it was brilliantly done and Eastern Promises is a worthy follow up. Other than a few gut-check moments, most notably the now infamous bathhouse fight scene that happens late in the film, Cronenberg directs in a straightforward manner guiding the viewer along and slowly revealing layer after layer as if he were opening a series of Russian nesting dolls.

Mortensen's performance as a would-be Mafioso with an overwhelming sense of compassion is both mesmerizing and moving. His face is as hard as stone as he hides behind his black sunglasses and super cool slicked back hair. Dressed all in black from head to toe, he is an intimidating figure. His iceman-like composure and unwavering dedication to his mob bosses make him the embodiment of the guy you don't ever want to meet in a dark alley. I don't want to give too much away, but sometimes looks can be deceiving and even though he conveys something dark and sinister, Nikolai has a heart. It's an amazing performance that will certainly land Mortenson on many critic's top ten lists.

The film's ambiguous ending leaves much open to interpretation as great art should. The viewer is left with whatever he or she wants to take away from it. To put it simply, Eastern Promises is one of the year's best films so far in a year that's been mediocre so far. It is at times brutal, sometimes moving, but in the end it is indeed very human.

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