Saturday, September 22, 2007

Legacy of brutality

"I'm just the driver."

Sitting at home, sans enfants for once, my wife and I decided, as I watched a pearl of sweat teasingly cascade down her cheek and roll with agonizing languor onto the curve of her neck, to do what any consenting adult couple would do in such a hot, humid situation. We went to the movies.

But what to see? Both of us being fans of horror, even cheesy, C-grade junk like the Resident Evil series (hey, continent-sized plotholes and shitty acting be damned; they have fucking zombies, dammit!), its new entry would've been a possibility if not for the new David Cronenberg movie, Eastern Promises. With 2005's brilliant A History of Violence, Cronenberg seemed to have finally shed the unfortunately derogatory label of being "just a horror director." As if that's a bad thing. What is horror but the pain of everyday life given a splash of color. Who hasn't had to deal with a serial or spree killer, a legendary monster, a sadistic pervert, a genetic mutant? Well, unless you've been to a Republican National Convention, I suppose you wouldn't have. But enough digressing. With A History of Violence, Cronenberg told the story of smalltown everyman Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) who, upon foiling a robbery by killing the would-be thieves, becomes a local hero. A mobster shows up claiming that Stall is actually a Philadelphia hitman. The mental and physical dynamic between Stall, his wife, their children and the world around him as his secret comes out into the open was as horrifying as any blood-stained slasher flick. Teaming up once more with the still-underrated Mortensen, Cronenberg again invites us into that milieu outside the law, savage, vicious and, yes, horrific.

Mortensen plays Nikolai, a driver for a Russian crime syndicate based in London and headed by Semyon, beautifully played by Armin Mueller-Stahl, who facial expressions seamlessly shift from genteel family patriarch to sadistic malevolence. Nikolai, in dealing with Semyon's unstable son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel), proves his loyalty to the family as a fixer - with a certainly appropriate sobriquet, the Undertaker - while we catch glimpses of the cold, stoic man's growing doubt in both his words and his body language. Anna (Naomi Watts), a nurse at a local hospital, comes into possession of the diary of a quite young Russian mother who had died giving birth. In time, after translation by her uncle, Anna becomes entangled in the grimy web spun by the Russian criminals. Nikolai gains the very best graces of Semyon, becoming a full member of the Vory v zakone syndicate, all the benefits therein for the price of unquestioned, unbending loyalty, while the desire of Anna to find a place - and justice - in the world for the newborn child and the nefarious machinations of the underworld speed towards a man who is certainly more than just the driver.

Nary a drop of brightness throughout, the gritty and rain-soaked thoroughfares of London provide the perfect backdrop to the grainy, noirish feel of the film. The much-talked about fight scene more than deserves its attention. Stark, unexpected, brutal, it's a brawl of the streets. There is no stylized gunplay, no overdone Hong Kong martial arts, just a raw physicality rarely seen in any movie of any genre.

The acting is superb in all corners. Each vignette between any combination of characters comes across as lifelike in both appearance and speech. It would've been so easy for Kirill to be nothing but sound and fury, histrionic melodrama, but Cassel maintains a perfect balance between psychosis and a legitimate desire to please his overbearing father, his king, all while trying to carve out his own niche. Watts takes what could've been a stock character, the concerned nurse/civil servant, and gives Anna an earthy flair and a toughness in the face of the constant threat of disappearance, death, or even worse as she maintains her relentless, yet realistically portrayed, pursuit. But the star of the show is unquestionably Viggo Mortensen. Playing Nikolai with the cold efficiency that the character demands, Mortensen skilfully eschews any weak sentimentality when a shot of humanity is required. I can't speak a lick of Russian or Ukrainian, but it certainly comes across as pretty goddamn authentic. This is an Oscar-calibre performance. The man can flat out fucking act.

Eastern Promises is another feather in the cap of both director and star, and the rest of the cast and crew maintains the high level of quality from start to finish. This is just a first-class film that's deserving of any accolades it receives and of your hard-earned money when it comes out on DVD. Magnificently brutal, brutally magnificent, it's both. Go see it.


Tom Harper said...

I'll have to check out that movie. History of Violence was excellent. If Naomi Watts is in this flick, all the more reason to see it. She was so good in Mulholland Drive, she was almost unbearable.

Randal Graves said...

It's definitely worth your cash. In its purest form, one could say it's A History of Violence in reverse, but Cronenberg didn't simply remake that flick. Ebert's take was right on the money in that it's not merely an exploration of the machinery of a crime family, but the people within in, human nature. The last shot in the flick is fucking perfect.