Ladies and gentlemen, this concludes my review of Eastern Promises, the new David Cronenberg film.
Okay. Not so fast.
I like David Cronenberg because of his unwavering commitment to exploring the problem of human evil, which he knows is infinite and endless and which he doesn't ever shirk away from. He rather revels in the voluptuousness of violence. Critics have complained about the excessive violence in this movie. It is a bit much, but I think it serves a purpose, as opposed to the retarded violence which is the rule in most Hollywood blockbusters. In Eastern Promises all violence is accomplished with sharp instruments, and it is brutal.
And Cronenberg wants you to look. He wants you to admit there is a place in the human heart where evil and savagery reside. He is fascinated by our dual nature, and has found in Viggo Mortensen a magnificent, precisely calibrated instrument for his investigations.
I have to tell you that I knew everything that was going to happen in the movie because the reviews I read made sure to tell it to me. I feel like suing the bastards. Even so, I was completely transfixed with it. As stories go, Eastern Promises relies a bit too much on some strategically placed coincidences. It seems for instance, that everybody in London is a Russian or has a Russian uncle. But that's nitpicking. Cronenberg is a wonderful storyteller and he has a way with images. He is one of the few current filmmakers whose imagery remains in your memory long after you've seen the film, and not necessarily the most violent imagery. After Dead Ringers, you'll never look at your gynecologist and his instruments the same way again. The same goes for cars and their accidents, with the original Crash, a wonderfully perverse movie. My favorite scene in Eastern Promises involves Vincent Cassel, who plays Kyril, a mean mess of a mob guy, inflating balloons for a birthday party.
Cronenberg used to be more of a meat and potatoes horror guy; now he is making more conventional moral stories. There is a new preoccupation with redemption in his films, and that's where he loses me a little, but I don't fault him for trying not to be so damn dark.
Eastern Promises is very rewarding because it is a good story, if you suspend your disbelief a couple of times, with wonderful actors in it. Viggo Mortensen plays Nikolai, a Russian mob driver, and he is a marvel of powerful understatement. He is even better than in A History of Violence. He drives the boss' son, Vincent Cassel, a chaotic mess of flamboyantly reprehensible behavior. Cassel chomps the scenery with great gusto (and great humanity), and they both play off each other beautifully, like a Russian mob odd couple. Viggo is the smart clean up guy and Vincent is the total fuck up. He is quite a monster, but the filmmakers give him a backstory of closeted gayness and impotence, and I think the impotence would have been enough, but I guess it helps to fuel his self hatred and the disgust of his disapproving, ruthless father, played, with an aura of benevolence by Armin Mueller Stahl.
Naomi Watts shows up as a good girl both attracted and repelled by these evil people (and who wouldn't be attracted to Viggo?) and Sinead Cusack is her mother and everybody is great.
The plot is a little confusing and full of revelations and betrayals that are a little hard to keep track of, but that keep us happily busy. I enjoyed much more its few subtleties than its obvious turns.
But there is a lot there to please: there is Viggo and Vincent and Viggo naked and tattooed, and if you can stomach it, a lot of gruesome, messy life.