'Promises' thrives on violence, not sensationalism

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Is Viggo Mortensen the best male actor working today?

I don't want to start any arguments, but seeing Mortensen inhabit the character of a Russian mafia hit man in "Eastern Promises" was like seeing Robert DeNiro come into his own in the late '70s and early '80s.

Critics made bold pronouncements about Mortensen's talent with the recent "A History of Violence," but with "Eastern Promises," he has staked his claim. Within minutes of the opening credits, Mortensen had suspended my disbelief and had me wary of what this dangerous character might do next.

Mortensen, Naomi Watts, and a wonderfully eclectic supporting cast has "Eastern Promises" out front in the Oscar race.

The story takes place in a darkly imagined London during a cold and wet Christmas season. After a young Russian immigrant and prostitute dies in childbirth, Anna, a hospital midwife (played by a reticent and naive Naomi Watts), takes a special liking to the young child. Anna recently has had a miscarriage and feels she should try everything she can to find the prostitute's Russian family. The only clues are the young mother's diary written in Russian and a business card to a Russian restaurant.

The restaurant turns out to be a front for the local head of the Russian mafia -- and oh for the good old days of Don Corleone! These guys are the worst of the worst of the worst. When the head of the family finds out that the prostitute left behind a diary -- surely implicating some of his "family" doing some nasty things, he promises to give Anna the address of the prostitute's family in return for the diary.

Let's just say that surprising complications arise.

Like director David Cronenberg's last film, "A History of Violence," "Eastern Promises" does not shy away from the graphic brutality of violence. In fact, Cronenberg will let the camera linger, allowing you, if you choose, to see with clarity what these humans are doing to each other.

And, strangely, it doesn't seem sensational. Unlike a horror or slasher film, it isn't trying to shock or scare you; it seems to be informing you. This representation of violence seems to let you shake your head at the human condition. You shake your head because you know it's real -- that the mob, and in this case the Russian mob, are this violent and do act this way. People who supply drugs, trade in sex slaves and supply the tools of evil in the world are simply very bad people.

Mortensen's Nikolai says to the innocent Anna early in the film, "Go away, you shouldn't associate with people like me." Truer words have not been said.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: