The Austin Chronicle

Eastern Promises

Rated R, 100 min. Directed by David Cronenberg. Starring Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Sinéad Cusack, Jerzy Skolimowski, Donald Sumpter.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Sept. 21, 2007

No one does corruption like Cronenberg. Whether it's the venereal metaphors of his early work (Shivers, Rabid) or the through-the-looking-glass, AIDS-esque horrors of The Fly or even the subtler moral conflagrations of 2005's A History of Violence, Cronenberg has an almost preternatural gift for exposing the intricacies, both physical and spiritual, of failures of the flesh (new or otherwise). Written by Dirty Pretty Things screenwriter Steven Knight, Eastern Promises plays at first like several films at once. The story begins as London midwife Anna (Watts) delivers the baby of a very young, needle-scarred mystery girl, who dies, leaving behind only her offspring and a small diary written in Cyrillic, which eventually leads Anna into the orbit of grandfatherly Russian mobster Semyon (Mueller-Stahl in a performance that puts you in mind of St. Nicholas by way of Lucifer), a member of the murderous Russian brotherhood vory v zakone. Semyon recognizes the diary as a threat to his livelihood and dispatches his vodka-crazed son, Kirill (Cassel), and tattoo-bedecked chauffeur, Nikolai (Mortensen), to track down the diary and anyone who has read it. There's more, of course, but Eastern Promises' many revelations are best approached by the unaware. Suffice it to say, Mortensen has been given the role of a lifetime; his transformation into the complexly duplicitous, taciturn, and enigmatic Nikolai is one of the most complete vanishments into a character I've ever seen, so much so that it rivals Christian Bale's chameleonic turns in the equally discomfiting The Machinist and, more recently, Rescue Dawn. Watts is equally fine, but her character has nothing in the line of Mortensen's visceral, vital, and very nude bathhouse battle – a grueling, almost unwatchably physical sequence that rivals the farmhouse murder in Hitchcock's Torn Curtain for sheer, sweaty realism. It's Cronenberg's film, but it's the actors who elevate Eastern Promises from mere thriller to some other, more disturbing plane: Cassel's leering Kirill, Mortensen's shadowy Nikolai, and Mueller-Stahl's amoral patriarch are a black-clad triptych in terror, shaded in throughout in inky grays and set off by the occasional spray of crimson, a dissolute trio bathed in corruption and perhaps even a modicum of redemptive grace. Or perhaps not. As with the characters in the movie, the less you know, the better off you are.

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