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The second cut

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Finally, a movie about an endangered infant whose destiny doesn’t lie in Clive Owen’s reluctant hands. But I’m getting ahead of myself …

David Cronenberg’s movies aren’t guaranteed to be great films — just films unlike any you’ve ever seen before. His latest, Eastern Promises, in which he re-teams with Viggo Mortensen, has both qualities (I say with some relief, after being one of the only three people in America disappointed with A History of Violence, apparently).

Promises could have run like pulp, and in some ways, it does. Coups, power-plays, and deceit make organized-crime fun. To watch. But writer Stephen Knight (Dirty Pretty Things) digs deeper with his pen, and the additional research and attention to detail — the meticulous tattoos, the authentic accents — paid by the director and actors sets this thriller apart — and of course, Cronenberg’s trademark gore, which the camera settles on; viewers are not let off easy. You’ll be no stranger to a slashed throat by this flick’s end.

Eastern Promises begins on a somewhat more innocent note: with a Christmas birth. The baby girl’s mother, a teenage sex worker named Tatiana, dies on the operating table of midwife Anna (Naomi Watts). Desperate to learn more, Anna nicks a diary from the purse of the deceased, hoping that perhaps it will hold information about Tatiana’s — and the newborn’s — family.

What it does contain is a business card for a local restaurant, run by a fatherly Russian man (who happens to be a Vory V Zakone mob boss) named Semyon. He apologizes nonchalantly to Anna, he did not know the mother; here, have some borscht. However, news of the diary — which is written in Russian — strikes his interest and he pushes to translate it.

Loitering around the restaurant are Semyon’s son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel, fantastic at acting drunk and better at acting despicable), who has just made an unauthorized kill, and Mortensen’s unsavory character, Nikolai, a “driver.” Really he is Watts’s opposite number, an undertaker of sorts, and you might say the tension between he and Watts could be cut with a knife. It’s too bad about her curiosity — you remember the cat.

The big, bloody, beating heart of Eastern Promises is Mortensen, around whom the film’s other performances (perfectly respectable ones) are dwarfed to dime-a-dozen capillaries. At 49, the actor looks like someone took a screwdriver to his face when he makes any expression but a straight one. He shows the audience every click of his jaw through swarthy cheek skin pulled drum-tight. If you only know him as Aragorn, or from Hidalgo, for that matter, you may very well not recognize him here. His tanned, beaten complexion is matched with kind of a pompadour; shot from afar he resembles an extra Mr. from Reservoir Dogs, or a stretchy, suit-wearing, cartoon supervillain. (If ever they make Thursday Next: The Eyre Affair into a film, he must be Acheron Hades.)

Facial gestures and physical embodiment are grand, but the accent sells the thing. In an interview published here last week, Mortensen described self-imposed immersion research in Russia, where he met some real-life unsavory characters. Sometimes it pays to run with the wrong crowd. •

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Eastern Promises
Dir. David Cronenberg, writ. Stephen Knight; feat. Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl (R)


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