Since the 70s, David Cronenbergs films have always been uneasy creations, from gore-enriched horror films to disturbing excursions into the human psyche.
In 2005, Cronenberg ushered in a new era by switching focus from horror to the genuine human experience with his Oscar-nominated film, A History of Violence.
How to follow it? Cronenberg chose to reunite with Violence star Viggo Mortensen and delve into an intimate and startling story of a London woman involved with some unsavory folks who, through pure happenstance, serve as a catalyst for major changes.
The film is Eastern Promises, and if its not as viscerally thrilling as Violence, it is every bit as memorable.
From the startling opening sequence set in a barber shop, Cronenberg takes a very Hitchcockian approach, using sinister narrative to keep the films pace slow, steady and deliberate.
The screenplay by Steven Knight takes a straightforward approach, but the surprises that both Knight and Cronenberg have in store jolt us out of our we-know-where-this-is-headed intuition.
The beauty is how all the movies elements join together.
Naomi Watts plays Anna, a hospital midwife who helps deliver the infant of an anonymous 14-year-old Russian prostitute. The mother dies and the baby lives, so Anna tries to find the babys family.
Meanwhile, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a Russian expatriate and local restaurateur, lords over an organized crime family. His son, Krill (Vincent Cassell), a drunkard and a buffoon, gets involved in a deadly battle with a rival gang of vicious Chechens, so Semyon, with the help of his chauffeur, Nikolai (Mortensen), attempts to save his sons life.
The two stories unite in a masterfully gripping way, generating the kind of high-level tension and unease that Cronenberg does so well.
While Cronenberg keeps things low key the atmosphere is dense with malevolence, yet it also contains vibrant bursts of Russian culture there persists the possibility of a dangerous eruption.
That eruption finally arrives, though in the most improbable setting imaginable. The scene is an instant classic, a ballet of violence and spurting blood, with decidedly feral undertones. It is a work of incomparable brilliance.
Mortensen gives a career-defining performance as Nikolai. Forget the Lord of the Ring heroics, this is a man born to play bad guys. There is a searing malevolence within his character, yet underneath it all, a hint of compassion and warmth.
Watts brings to Anna both a toughness and naivet; shes the perfect centerpiece.
Muller-Stahl is superb as Semyon, playing an outwardly kindly Russian elder with chilling blue eyes that convey the ferocity and evil that lurks within. Cronenberg grasps that the eyes are the window to the soul and he deploys it to perfection.
When the movie is over, you recall its various touch points with an unexpected depth, leaving you with the feeling of tragedy mixed with a tiny shard of hope.
A History of Violence surprised everyone when it was nominated for an Oscar. Dont be surprised if, come Oscar time, history repeats itself … and then some.
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