Eastern Promises

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Eastern Promises

Director: David Cronenberg
Writer: Steven Knight
Cinematographer: Peter Suschitzky
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Vincent Cassel
Studio/Running Time: Focus Features, 100 min.

It’s difficult to enjoy the twists and turns of a film’s path when you already know the road ahead. You’d be hard-pressed to find many viewers grasping theater arm rests when Janet Leigh gets what’s coming to her in Psycho, just as you’d have a hell of a time finding someone who doesn’t know the man behind Oz’s curtain. But despite the roadmap we’re handed at the theater door of Eastern Promises, it’s not impossible to relish in what we already know.

We see the opening murder coming from miles away — a shady exchange within a conspicuous London barbershop, ending in grisly collapse. We question the benevolence of Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife that takes interest in the newborn she delivers from a dying vagabond who’s fresh off the streets with track-marked arms and an incriminating diary detailing a sordid past. We come to meet reticent Russian Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), a doer of dirty deeds for a restaurateur (Armin Mueller-Stahl) with questionable extracurricular activities. When we find out that said restaurateur is connected with the death of the junkie mother, it’s obvious that something is awry.

Expected is the clashing of pure-intentioned Anna with the stalwart Nikolai, pairing off the good with the less-than-good. We nod knowingly when we see the brutish thug’s defenses start to wane, letting out some of the nobility that rests within.

And yet still, with all these familiar evocations comes the hook only a talented cast and crew could bring. David Cronenberg’s somber vision of London, a sporadically gentrified urban sprawl, pitches maligned characters against extravagant backdrops, and vice-versa. Dim landscapes echo morose moods. A restrained score leaves us with tense feelings. Brutality and bloodletting is scant sprinkled throughout, but packed densely and effectively when present.

But the real gem of the picture comes in Mortensen, delivering a stirring performance as a good man compelled to do very bad things. Ever the reluctant participant, he distances himself from Watts’ Anna by assuming the role of the crime-hive drone. Even without dialogue, Mortensen’s Nikolai cannot hide the conflict within himself. His eyes alone deserve award-winning attention throughout the film.

In the end, Cronenberg has led us to make one conclusion: Robert Frost was a hack. We don’t need a road less traveled by to make all the difference; we need a learned guide to lead us.

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