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On the Aisle- Film Review by Tony Macklin

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Eastern Promises

Violence has always been a popular staple of the movies. When violence starts to lose its potency, there always seems to be a creative director to bring it back to vibrant life.
Arthur Penn in Bonnie & Clyde (1967), Sam Peckinpah
in The Wild Bunch (1969), Marty Scorsese in Taxi
Driver (1976), Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction
(1994), et al., brought pain and impact back to
violence. There’s always a director who decides it’s
time to restore power and human feeling to violence.
Today’s films may need such a director. In today’s
films violence is often comic and garish — it’s video
games and graphic novels.
Along comes director David Cronenberg. He is a
director who sets out to bring life (and death) back
to violence. In Eastern Promises he does just that. It
is a movie that will make audiences squirm and look
away.
Eastern Promises is only 100 minutes, and it’s not
end-to-end violence. But when it is violent, it is
memorably, humanly violent.
It’s a different take. Its violence is abrupt,
visceral, and punishing. It has all kinds of menace.
(One interesting note: count how many times guns are
fired.)
If you see Eastern Promises, see if you look away.
I’ll bet you do. If not, at least you’ll blink.
Eastern Promises is the tale of a midwife (Naomi
Watts) at a London hospital, who finds an
incriminating diary in the belongings of a young woman
who dies in childbirth.
A leader of the Russian Mafia in London (Armin
Mueller-Stahl) wants to retrieve the revealing book.
He enlists his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and his
son’s driver and enforcer Nikola Luzhin (Viggo
Mortensen) in his efforts.
Deceit, revenge, and violence erupt.
Director Cronenberg is one of a kind. He always has
been fascinated by violence, sex, and doppelgangers
(split personalities).
Cronenberg’s best film Dead Ringers (1988) probably
was too esoteric for a mass audience. Other Cronenberg
films, such as Spider (2002), certainly were.
But recently Cronenberg has become more commercial.
The History of Violence (2005), which he directed, was
more accessible for audiences and did well at the box
office.
Now Eastern Promises appears as though it will be a
commercial success.
Cronenberg has found an actor who seems ideal for
his vision. Viggo Mortensen is strong, sexy and
enigmatic. As Nikolai Luzhin in Eastern Promises, he
is lethal and unpredictable. He seems to know
something the rest of us don’t.
Naomi Watts has a neurotic quality that meshes well
with the stolid Mortensen. Her Anna Khitrova is
stubborn but vulnerable, which adds to the palpable
anxiety.
Armin Mueller-Stahl has a perverse charm as the
soft-spoken Mafia leader. And Vincent Cassell is
effective as the out-of-control, squirrelly son.
Steve Knight, who did the screenplay for Dirty
Pretty Things, has a patent on the dark, corrupt side
of London. Cronenberg creates an ambience of bleakness
and dark rain. The Canadian director shot the film in
England.
Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky and production
designer Denise Cronenberg contribute mightily to the
compelling look of the film.
Eastern Promises ends abruptly. One expects more
violent scenes to come, but Cronenberg has made his
point. He doesn’t need to repeat himself as so many
contemporary films do.
Despite ending suddenly, Eastern Promises remains
in the memory long after one has left the theater.
As violence and humanity should.

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