September 13, 2007

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Eastern Promises (R)
Like Gallagher with the watermelon, director David Cronenberg sprays his audience with blood in the cringe-inducingly violent Eastern Promises, the tale of a Russian mob family in London.

I don’t mind violence. Done right I like a good ballet of bloody spurts, sword swishes and automatic-weaponry-enhanced duels. I loved Grindhouse, 300 and The Departed. And I saw Eastern Promises in a theater full of film critics — more or less the same group of people who laughed (I along with them) when Pete Postlethwaite was dramatically killed in 2006’s The Omen via a spike that ran him through lengthwise (maybe it doesn’t sound funny but, trust me, with the right group of people, it’s a real Mystery Science Theater 3000 moment).

During Eastern Promises? The group cringed and exclaimed like the daintiest arachnophobe confronted with a tarantula. The movie starts off with a scene of two men in a barbershop: one the client, the other the barber. A third man comes along, the less-than-a-full-deck son of the barber. This kind of situation never turns out well for the guy sitting in the chair but in this movie the customer getting a real short cut doesn’t just have his throat slit, we watch the son do it close up and with catches and hesitations. It’s shocking in a way I didn’t think a modern movie-goer could shock. “Aggghh,” I heard grown men moan while a woman below me whipped her head away from the screen and I recoiled, bringing my hands to my face.

And thus is our introduction into the world of the vory v zakone (as the Russian mob with Russain prison ties is refered to here), headed in London by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). His accent and mannerisms can seem grandfatherly but his eyes and the violence that we quickly realize lies behind them are scary as all hell. When he finds out about the brutal murder in scene one, he’s not at all pleased. His own son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) is, we suspect, weak, not very bright, a sadist and rather insecure — qualities that make him the second-scariest man in the movie as his own nuttiness means that his propensity to violence is not deliberative and could easily catch friend or foe at the wrong moment. Kirill is at his steadiest when he’s around the driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), who we can tell (in part because of his impressive tableau of prison tattoos) is aiming for bigger things than chauffeuring and the occasional disposal of a dead body.

Into this den of sharpened knives comes Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife who delivers the baby of a drug-addled and passed-out girl who dies during childbirth. The girl — we soon learn she was a very young teenager — has no identification but does have a diary (written in Russian) and a business card for the Russian restaurant owned by Semyon. Searching for the baby’s family (or maybe, searching in hopes that the baby doesn’t have any family and could therefore be adoptable by Anna, who, we learn had a miscarriage), Anna goes to Semyon, shows him the card and tells him that she’s planning on getting the diary translated. This is just enough information to ensure that Anna will have a hard time shaking Semyon and his family. Though they claim to know nothing about the girl, we soon learn that importing young girls to be drugged up and used as prostitutes is only one of their many unsavory businesses.

Think The Sopranos was violent? Its scenes of whackings, mostly via gunshots, seem downright prim and discrete compared to the hand-to-hand, mostly knife-assisted killings here. There is an extended scene where a naked Nikolai, his little czar and Cossacks swinging free, fights off two assassins — cutting and choking and being cut and choked. It is absolutely, unforgivingly brutal.

Anna’s basically good intentions and only slightly pushy Western mannerisms seem reckless in this environment. Why is she doing that, I would think as she challenged Nikolai or mouthed off in front of Kirill (who is like a combination of the least likable, most dangerous qualities of Sonny and Fredo Corleone). The movie didn’t just build the suspense but it actually caused me to tense up — I don’t think my back touched the seat until the scenes where I would reflexively crouch back against it, as though I were trying to keep the spurts of blood from getting on me.

Take away the shocking violence and the Russian crime atmospherics that are at times laid on a little thick, and Eastern Promises doesn’t feel quite as complex, nuanced or powerful as A History of Violence, director David Cronenberg’s last film. The performances are strong — particularly Watts’ and Mueller-Stahl’s — but they don’t reach the rawness of Maria Bello’s in A History of Violence. Though this film might have you squealing — loudly — “Yow! Not in the eye!” that movie somehow cut closer to the bone. In this movie, Nikolai draws a clear line for Anna between the bad people (himself and his employers) and the good people (Anna and her British mother and Russian uncle). In A History of Violence, brutally existed right inside the home of the so-called “good people.”

But, hey, they don’t all have to be so thinky. Eastern Promises is plenty smart, with strong, engaging (even when they’re repulsive) characters and a tension-rich story. With all that bloodiness and a sex scene that is as brutal and ugly as some of the scenes of violence, Eastern Promises is a solid little movie that’s definitely not for everybody. B+

Rated R for strong brutal and bloody violence (no, really, brutal — sleep-with-the-lights-on brutal), some graphic sexuality, language and nudity. Directed by David Cronenberg and written by Steven Knight, Eastern Promises is an hour and 40 minutes and is distributed by Focus Features. Information about the movie’s release date varies. It will open in at least Boston on Friday, Sept. 14, and could open wider on Sept. 21.