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09.25 Eastern Promises

Leave it to David Cronenberg to direct a blood-soaked, half-naked, unflinchingly violent bathhouse knife fight. He is, after all, the same dude who didn't just cut the camera away and let the sound effects do their work in a scene in which a well-dressed man is dispatched with a straight razor in a London barbershop; this he shows in full view, the throat in mention acting as the focus of a shot that lasts for a good fifteen seconds and doesn't spare the viewer the inexperience of the executioner, all angular cuts and clumsy sawing.

This is pretty much standard fare for the director, whose 2005 outing, 'A History of Violence,' garnered praise for its similarly unapologetic portrayals of brutality. 'Eastern Promises,' which opened September 21st, undeniably deserves similar accolade.

Trying persistently to escape shouts of 'Aragorn' by fanboys across the nation, Cronenberg's go-to mystery man Viggo Mortensen returns to the screen after a go in 'Violence.' Mortensen's Nikolai, detached and calculated and badass and tattooed and scarred and brooding and good with gardening shears, is the driving force behilnd the film and perhaps the reason for the gracefully unsettling dynamic that has characterized the last two of Mr. Cronenberg's films.

That unnerving tension, so effective in the construction and tone of the film's narrative, is likely due to a number of factors, among them the ruthless cool with which Mortenson plays Russian transplant Nikolai Luzhin, driver for a London arm of the 'vory v zakone' ["thieves in law"]. Acting as a 'driver' for the Russian Mob, however, also entails pulling teeth, snipping off digits and dumping bodies in the Thames. Mortensen's Nikolai does all this calmly and straight-faced, eerily composed to the point that the character's perceived nihilism clashes perfectly with the audience's inexplicable draw to the well-dressed man of many tattoos.

This fascination is shared, of course, by the film's female protagonist: Naomi Watts, tastefully understated but believably strong-willed as hospital midwife Anna Kitrova [a dead Russian father subtly factors into the equation], plays to [and along with] the audience perfectly. We are hand-in-hand with her as she seeks out justice on behalf of a clearly-abused mother who dies during childbirth. And with her similarly as she returns out of intrigue to the place where the mother's diary has lead her: the restaurant that serves as home base for the mob.

It is the organization's fuzzy, family-oriented exterior that keeps us in line with Watts; not cursing her aloud for going back to the house like we might a cleavage-revealing horror movie heroine. Instead, we believe her intrigue and are right there with her, curious about every Siberian prison tattoo and poorly-healed scar.

What follows is a movie teeming with unease and moral decay, where the standard drug trafficking commonly associated with mob activity is replaced by the far-more-sinister trafficking of young human cargo.

The ensemble cast of Eastern Promises--Mortensen, Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl and the detestable Vincent Cassel--complements Cronenberg's directing and writer Steven Knight's [Dirty Pretty Things] script perfectly. The movie achieves that intangible filmic phenomenon in which the outcome reads flawlessly: not as a blockbuster and not as an arthouse film, but as a tactful, understated mix of accessibility, morality and humanity.