Combustible Celluloid
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With: Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller Stahl, Sinead Cusack, Mina Mina, Jerzy Skolimowski, Donald Sumpter
Written by: Steven Knight
Directed by: David Cronenberg
MPAA Rating: R for strong brutal and bloody violence, some graphic sexuality, language and nudity
Running Time: 96
Date: 09/08/2007

Eastern Promises (2007)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Russian Art

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

David Cronenberg's latest is a fairly traditional gangster story. It's not too long, and it doesn't particularly have anything to say about the gangster genre the way GoodFellas or Miller's Crossing did. With less violence and graphic language and maybe filmed in black-and-white, it could have been released back in the 1940s. What makes it great is that it's a David Cronenberg movie; he tells a compelling story, filled with his own particular obsessions. It's personal, unpretentious and unassuming. It's basically what Manny Farber used to call an "Underground Movie," or the type of movie that doesn't call attention to itself, although it does contain its own sublime artistry.

Cronenberg's storytelling here is so subtle, and he immerses us into this world so completely, that it doesn't become clear for some time that we're in London, albeit a tucked-away corner occupied by Russian families. Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) works as a midwife at a hospital and lives with her mother (Sinéad Cusack) and her Uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski). When a 14 year-old pregnant girl comes to the hospital, Anna is able to save the baby, but not the girl, who remains unidentified, save for a diary written in Russian and the address of a restaurant. There she meets Seymon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who -- unbeknownst to her -- runs a violent crime family. He butters her up with some real Russian cooking; her own family eats bad English food.

Seymon's son is Kirill (Vincent Cassel), an unstable, violent loon. Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen) is charged with looking after him and driving him around, but also killing people from time to time. Nikolai is essential to the family, but still excluded from official functions like birthday parties. Thus the two outsiders, Nikolai and Anna, find a kind of uneasy bond. Even so, Anna's poking into the identity of the pregnant girl opens a few dangerous wounds.

Instantly, Eastern Promises looks like a Cronenberg film, and not just because it opens with a throat-slicing. It has an intelligent, deliberate pace and allows for questions about the human body. As with A History of Violence, this film has little to do with supernatural bonding of technology and flesh, but rather the problem of the flesh vs. the soul. Can the flesh, or the body, accurately represent who a person really is? Cronenberg directly addresses the question with the theme of tattoos. Each of the Russian thugs is decorated with designs that could have secret meanings, or even more than one meaning. One specific tattoo, a pair of stars located one on each shoulder, comes into play during the climax and perfectly illustrates this theme.

Eastern Promises is also Cronenberg's first real "food" movie, and he luxuriates in showing the richness and seductiveness of the Russian food, vs. the bland, junky quality of the regular English food consumed by Anna and her family. It's surprising that Cronenberg hasn't taken on a food theme before this, as it's another melding of flesh and manufactured, outside material.

Like A History of Violence, this new film will seem like a mature departure for Cronenberg, but mainly because it's not specifically a horror film. It's still riddled with violence and dark ideas (one particularly effective and memorable fight scene takes place between a naked Nikolai and two leather-clad thugs in a white tile bath house). But even so, it may be more inviting for moviegoers unfamiliar with or unwilling to tackle his more explicit films. It may or may not win any awards come December, but I'd be willing to single out Mueller-Stahl for a superb performance as the Godfather-like boss, as well as Mr. Cronenberg, who for my money is the greatest working film director alive.

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