Lowdown: A Russian gangster in London.
David Cronenberg is one of those directors that is not afraid to go to extremes, often mixing sex and violence at levels one is not used to seeing on commercial cinema. While most of his films are eccentric (Crash, a tale of people who crash themselves in their cars while having sex, is the primary example I can come with), I do find his films to gradually improve. eXistenZ was fine, if confusing, and Spider was very interesting. However, with History of Violence Cronenberg has finally managed to come up with a film that knocked me off my seat because it was so good; will Eastern Promises follow suit?
Well, yes, it does, thank you very much. It also features Viggo Mortensen in the lead role, again, and in a plot that revolves around Violence just like its predecessor.
This time around the story is set in London. Naomi Watts, a nurse of Russian origins, finds this young Russian girl who dies while giving birth. Watts takes care of the baby as her job dictates, but also goes out to find more about the mother in order to take care of the child.
In her quest she stumbles upon a Russian mafia family that is very cold blooded indeed. She gets knee deep with them, and soon her entire family is in trouble. However, she can't help being intrigued by Mortensen's character, a helper in the service of the family, who is both helpful as well as extremely violent.
In a typical Cronenberg way, Eastern Promises raises questions about violence and its justification. As in, is it OK to harm someone who is bad? Is it OK to harm someone in order to save others? These questions are raised through the use of extreme violence that would probably turn many peoples' stomachs. Then there's the issue of immigrants lives in a new country and the conflicts that living in a new country while keeping a firm hold of older values and supposedly integrating.
Aside of the gripping plot and the thought provoking aspects of Eastern Promises, the one thing I'll remember EP by is the acting. Watts gives a high amperage performance, but Mortensen stands out with a performance of a lifetime one is rarely subjected to: in his looks, talk and slightest gestures the guy would pass for nothing but a Russian gangster. If that is what Mortensen's second engagement with Cronenberg brought along, I can't wait for a third installment.
Best scene: There are many candidates worth mentioning here. For the role of the most esoteric scenes, the one where Mortensen ruthlessly fights for his life with two gangsters at a Turkish bath - while in the nude - is probably the most memorable.
Then there is the scene where Mortensen is interviewed by the Russian mafia bosses as they try to estimate his worthiness for a managerial role. It's like a glimpse into an alien world, but an acceptable alien world at that.
However, the one scene I liked the most is a much simpler one, where Mortensen warns Watts to stir away from bad guys like himself. Mortensen is just so good in there it's amazing.
Picture quality: It's dark and it's got its unique look, but it's also good.
Sound quality: The emphasis here is on realism, so while this is not the most engulfing soundtrack ever it does work in this sense.
Overall: One of the best films I've seen for a while, robbed half a star by the slightest of Cronenberg's eccentricities. 4.5 out of 5 stars.