Monday, April 12, 2010

Eastern Promises

Most films that deal with the mafia, in its various forms, tend to sensationalize it.  Sure, you usually end up dead by "lead poisoning," but the trip there looks pretty entertaining, right?  Not so much in this movie.  Maybe there is still a bit of Cold War stigma attached to the Russians, or maybe they're just scarier criminals than the traditional Italian movie mobsters.  Whatever the case, this film does not romanticize their lifestyle at all.

I wouldn't really categorize this as a mob movie, in the traditional sense.  Sure, there are mobsters, but that association of criminals is secondary to the fact that this is a crime film.  The movie begins with two deaths.  They seem to have no immediate connection, but as a dead girl's diary, a midwife, and a Russian mob family all become intertwined, the connection becomes clear.  This is a plot heavy film that demands attention, otherwise the suspense and the plot twists will be ineffective.  If you're willing to shut up and watch, though, you're in for a gritty treat.

Naomi Watts plays a midwife in Britain that attends to a teenage girl's delivery.  The girl dies, unknown and without identification, but the child survives.  Determined to get the baby to its family, Watts finds a diary, written in Russian, as the girl's sole belonging.  Her Russian immigrant uncle is unwilling to translate the diary, but Watts is able to find the name of a restaurant, so she goes there.  The restaurant is clearly the legitimate business front for a Russian mafia family, run by Armin Mueller-Stahl.  His son, played by Vincent Cassel, is ineffective and mean; Cassel's bodyguard and driver, Viggo Mortensen, is brutal and loyal.  At first, Mueller-Stahl feigns ignorance of the dead girl, but becomes very interested when Watts mentions a diary, written in Russian.  From this point forward, the plot begins to tighten its proverbial webs.  The characters seem claustrophobic as their options dwindle and violence becomes imminent.  Watts realizes the mistake she made, unwittingly going to the Russian mob, and sees how easily she, her family, or even the unwanted baby can be hurt by these men.  Vincent Cassel tries to please his father, but his brutality and stupidity shine through and his "heir apparent" status becomes questionable.  Viggo sees his loyalty and talents rewarded, but was unaware of the price he would be asked to pay.

I don't want to give away much about this movie because the drama comes from putting the pieces together yourself.  I will, however, point out one of the excellent choices this film makes.  You might expect the main characters, Viggo and Watts, to have a star-crossed romance here; in films where loyalty to an organization is paramount, the outside love interest is a common source of conflict.  Not so much here, although I will admit to some sexual tension.

The lack of romance makes this plot significantly less predictable and more awesome.  Director David Cronenberg does a great job throughout, both with the actors and the camera work.  Armin Mueller-Stahl is great as the godfather-type character; that description doesn't do the character justice, though.  This godfather is feared and is crafty.  He plays his cards close to the vest and plays people like chess pieces.  I think his best moment was when he appeared in Naomi Watts' hospital, just to show how easily he could enter a secure ward without a problem.  It's difficult to portray something as complex as a very dangerous man calmly restraining himself, but the menace is present in most of Mueller-Stahl's scenes.  Naomi Watts does a good job, too, although her main job is to realize just how deep of trouble she has gotten into.  It was nice to see a determined female lead that did not depend on a romantic interest to achieve her goals.  Vincent Cassel is fine here, which is a huge step above his Ocean's Twelve performance.  Viggo Mortensen, on the other hand, is extremely impressive.  His character design is just one of the reasons for this; Russian mobsters have their crimes and achievements displayed on their bodies with tattoos, and his collection makes him look pretty bad ass.  They were realistic, too; he went out for dinner after a day of shooting without having the makeup removed and noticed an Eastern European family fall silent in his presence.  Viggo does show off his man junk in this movie, but you'll notice that I pointed out the lack of romance (although not sex) in this film.  No, Viggo's nudity comes from an awesome (and, in all probability, eventually legendary) fight scene.  Normally, male nudity is used for uncomfortable humor in movies.  Here, it A) shows off the body art and B) makes Viggo seem all the tougher for taking on armed (and clothed) assassins in the buff.  While Mueller-Stahl's menace is restrained, Viggo's is vibrant.  You see the things he is willing to do without batting an eye, so when he speaks to Watts and her family, it makes his choice of words and actions sometimes frightening. 

I'll admit that I'm not a huge fan of anyone involved in this movie.  I can usually take or leave Viggo; sure, Lord of the Rings is great, but Hidalgo?  Really?  That's your follow-up?  Vincent Cassel has earned my lifelong ire for being one of two elements that made Ocean's Twelve absolutely unwatchable.  Naomi Watts is okay, I guess, but I'm not used to her not screaming.  David Cronenberg has made some great movies, but some of his work is just too weird (Naked Lunch) or too creepy-James-Spader-y (Crash) for my tastes.  This movie rises above all that to make, at worst, a solid crime flick.  Obviously, my take is a little better than an "at worst."  Not a simple movie, but not a difficult one to understand, I like just about everything in this film.
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