Judge Clark Douglas never breaks his eastern promises. The western ones, though...
Every sin leaves a mark.
"Sometimes, if things are closed, you just open them up."
Facts of the Case
Eastern Promises stars Naomi Watts (Mulholland Drive) as Anna, a midwife at a London hospital. At the start of the film, Anna participates in an emergency delivery. The young mother dies, the child lives. The mother leaves behind a journal, which Anna keeps in order to try and find some information about the girl's family. The journal is written in Russian, a language Anna does not understand. A local restaurant owner named Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl, The Game) offers to translate it for her, but his motivations are not pure. He is the head of one of the most powerful organized crime families in Europe, and the journal contains dark personal secrets that Semyon would like to get rid of.
While Anna finds herself getting backed into a corner, we meet and follow other characters. Seymon's son is named Kirill (Vincent Cassell, Ocean's 12), who is only a major part of the crime family because he has a blood right to be. He is generally incompetent, impatient, and often just plain pathetic in his sniveling emotional displays. Kirill is frequently aided by his very ambitious driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen, A History of Violence), a man who is intensely loyal to Kirill while also quietly earning Seymon's favor.
2007 was a rather stellar year for character-based thrillers. The year contained such fine films as Zodiac, Bug, The Lookout, The Brave One, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, No Country for Old Men, and The Bourne Ultimatum. One of the strongest titles among that classy group is David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises, a top-drawer thriller that earned Cronenberg a great deal of praise (something the director has not gotten enough of throughout his ambitious career).
In my plot description, I was hesitant to tell you much about what happens to these characters, or about the decisions they make. I will tell you that this is a smart, riveting thriller that grabs your attention from the opening scene and never lets go. The film has enough surprising plot twists to merit comparison with "twisty" titles such as The Usual Suspects, Fight Club, and The Crying Game, but here, the characters are more interesting than the plot developments. Every character is meticulously crafted by writer Steven Knight (who gave us Dirty Pretty Things), and every actor brings precisely the right notes to their role.
Viggo Mortensen is the actor who stands out the most, and I really think that this role solidified the general consensus that Mortensen was an A-list actor. His performance here is just as strong as his remarkable turn in A History of Violence. This performance is much more than a Russian accent (which is excellent). Mortensen finds the inner core of this character and becomes him. Mortensen makes a big impression in a rather quiet way, and doesn't have to offer any of the noisy shouting scenes that look so impressive on an Oscar reel. Likewise, another masterpiece of understatement is offered by Armin Mueller-Stahl, who is actually good enough to merit comparison with Marlon Brando in The Godfather. Mueller-Stahl's character is quiet, charming, hypnotic, but there's a river of silently savage violence boiling under the surface. Sure, everyone in the film is effective and convincing, but Mortensen and Mueller-Stahl are the two that really deserve some attention.
And finally, of course, credit must go where credit is due, to David Cronenberg. I've liked or loved almost every film Cronenberg has made, and I have found all of them very compelling. He is not a horror director, but his films have a way of getting under our skin, partially because they have so much beneath their skin. He also is one of the most intelligent directors in cinema when it comes to dealing with violence (a subject that was at the center of his previous film). Here, during the film's all ready famous fight scene, Cronenberg sets us up for a thrill and then chills us with a raw and unforgiving scene that makes us cringe rather than cheer. The whole movie is sort of like that…it sets us up for one thing, and then gives us another that makes even more sense than what we expected. Few films are this consistently well-crafted, surprising, and thought-provoking.
The hi-def transfer is quite strong here. Facial detail in particular is very sharp, and the strong visual feel of the film is nicely presented here. Flesh tones are occasionally just a little odd-looking, but there really isn't much to complain about here. Sound is exceptional, though I was a little surprised by how subtle the sound design is here. It's certainly one of the more understated thrillers I've seen in recent years. Even so, I was pleased by how nicely the sound was distributed. Howard Shore's elegiac score plays a nice role in the film, telling its own story and generating it's own set of emotions rather than merely reflecting what we see onscreen.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I'm not sure if there is another director out there who does a better commentary than David Cronenberg. So you'll understand my disappointment when I tell you that this Blu-ray disc fails to provide a commentary. Okay, so how about a nice making-of documentary? Sadly, what we get here isn't that impressive. A handful of featurettes are pleasant enough, but painfully brief. They run less than a half-hour combined, and the only once actually worth watching is the ten-minute "Secrets and Stories," a rather standard-issue making-of. This is a film that deserves the kind of solid treatment that A History of Violence received, and I sincerely hope that some sort of deluxe special edition will be released at some point.
The fact that this film is still getting short-changed in the supplements department bugs me, but this is a superb motion picture that looks excellent in hi-def. An easy recommendation.
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Scales of Justice
• "Secrets and Stories"
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