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2013 Comic Book
Directed by David Cronenberg
Written by Steven Knight
Starring Viggo Mortenson and Naomi Watts
The film follows the mysterious and ruthless Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), who is tied to one of London's most notorious organized crime families. His carefully maintained existence is jarred when he crosses paths with Anna (Naomi Watts), an innocent midwife trying to right a wrong, who accidentally uncovers potential evidence against the family.
No one does gore like David Cronenberg. Yes, I mean you too, Quentin.
It's the strange combination of excess and reserve that make the bloodshed in a Cronenberg so compelling, and that particular combination is a good way of explaining just why "Eastern Promises" is in so many ways such a superior film.
Recalling the way he opens "A History of Violence," "Promises" begins with one active act of violence, and the aftermath of another, both painting pictures that are startling and unique - a murder by a reluctant and ineffective assassin, and a bleeding girl who wanders into a shop barefoot and proceeds to hemorrhage all over the floor.
It's the very banality and specificity of the locations (a store, a barbershop) that gives you the sense that the horrors he portrays could really be happening behind closed doors a few feet from where you yourself live.
That's "Eastern Promises" to a T, a film that refuses to let you believe that anything you're seeing is made up. The relationships between the characters are familiar and familial, full of the kind of realistic pain and angst and old injuries that refuse to let you separate yourself from them by the usual screen of generality.
When midwife Anna goes home to her mother and uncle, you know immediately by the strained interactions that no one in this house has an easy time living together. But you also understand that the very fact they fight and remain together speaks to an underlying love that isn't communicated by films where the characters all get along.
Paradoxically, it's because of the arguments, because they press each others' buttons, that you value them and you don't want to see them hurt.
That's Cronenberg's genius - to, like the Coen Brothers, take a bunch of what could be very unlikeable characters and invest them with enough real flaws and truth that you are wholly in their world. You can't escape; you are emotionally invested. You don't want them to do anything bad, or to get hurt.
Naomi Watts and Viggo Mortensen are stellar in an all-together excellent cast as the mid-wife who cares too much - but because of her own losses even more than because of some random, Hollywood innate goodness, and the "driver" who is working his way up in a Russian mob family with a brutality that obscures his own underlying moral code.
There's not a single performance that's less than compelling from the always solid Sinead Cusack (Stealing Beauty, The Cement Garden), to Vincent Cassel's drunk letch of privileged mob son, to the legendary Armin Mueller-Stahl as the initially sympathetic Russian Mafia boss, to Josef Atlin as the doomed Ekrem for whom violence is a natural rite of passage and part of both life and culture.
Cronenberg drops you into the middle of a mystery that is at least as much about the secrets of humanity as it is about the identity of a child born to a woman whose track marks and diary are the only clues to what has been a short and tragic life. He insists that you understand that just by caring about this child, you have opened a door that cannot be closed, not without more blood spilled, and not without experiencing irrevocable change.
"Eastern Promises" proves again that Cronenberg is a director with a vision and the skills to carry that vision out, with blood, with violence, and with a stubborn and inescapable belief in the power of humanity.
This is a must-see. Five out of five.