Saturday, September 22, 2007

Eastern Promise and Promises

I'm late posting today because I spent most of the day running around, trying to get errands done before I leave early tomorrow morning for Bethesda.

I dropped Tribble off at the vet first thing this morning.

My vet does not normally do boarding, but when I explained that the kennel refused to take the twenty-two-year-old calico Manx (see that sad little story here), Timm agreed to cover for me.

Although I've been daily telling Trib, "If you see the light, go toward it, sweetie," I found myself cuddling her this morning saying "Hey, don't pick now to throw off this mortal coil, okay? Wait till I get back."

For most of the day, I ran around like a chicken whose head had just been whomped off. Around 2:30 this afternoon, I took a break to go see Eastern Promises. I was pretty sure this movie's violence would disturb my usual movie-going friends, and I didn't want my viewing of it tainted by squeamish companions and their complaints.

Eastern Promises is another collaboration between director David Cronenberg and actor Viggo Mortensen. Almost exactly two years ago, I wrote about their earlier film together, A History of Violence, here. That movie was one of my picks for the ten best films of 2005.

Boy, was I right about the violence. In the first five minutes of the film, a guy gets his throat cut (up close and personal) and a fourteen-year-old hemorrhages in a London drugstore. Cronenberg explores familiar territory: the psyche of violent men engaged in illegal business. This time, instead of the American Mafia, he turns his cinematic eye on the Vory V Zakone, the Russian mob, in London.

Viggo Mortensen's Nordic background makes him perfect for the role of the mysterious Russian-born driver Nikolai Luzhin. His high, sharp cheekbones practically scream Slav. With his hair lightened and slicked back, he is the very picture of menace (not to mention sex on a stick). His body is covered with Russian prison tattoos.

Nikolai works for Kirill, the son of brutal mob boss Semyon. A thread of homoeroticism runs through the men's relationship. Kirill obviously hero worships Nikolai, whom he calls The Undertaker.

Naomi Watts is Anna Khitrova, a London midwife of Russian descent. Tatiana, the pregnant fourteen-year-old, ends up dying in the emergency room of the hospital in which Anna works. The midwife, who recently lost a child of her own, becomes determined to find Tatiana's family to prevent the newborn from ending up in the State's care. She brings the teen's diary written in Russian home to her uncle to translate. When she finds a card for the posh Trans-Siberian restaurant in the diary, she pays the place a visit, bringing herself and the diary to the attention of Semyon.

Probably the scene that will be most discussed takes place in a public bath where Nikolai--stark naked--fights off an attack by two Russian killers. The shock of Viggo's full frontal nudity is diminished by amazement at the violent dance the three men share. As I drove home thinking about it, the only scene I could compare it to for the impression it made on me was the choreography of the fights in West Side Story.

I just went to Wikipedia to check on Walter Kerr's famous review of West Side Story, which I was certain would be described there. Sure enough, here's what Wikipedia has to say:

The creators' innovations in dance, music and theatrical style resulted in strong reactions from the critics. Walter Kerr wrote in the New York Herald Tribune on September 27, 1957: “The radioactive fallout from West Side Story must still be descending on Broadway this morning. Director, choreographer, and idea-man Jerome Robbins has put together, and then blasted apart, the most savage, restless, electrifying dance patterns we've been exposed to in a dozen seasons."

I think the fight scene in Eastern Promises will be remembered in the same way.

Of course, the other film that invites comparison to Eastern Promises is The Godfather. I wonder if The Godfather had been filmed today instead of in 1972, how it would be different. I also wonder whether David Cronenberg will return to direct a sequel to Eastern Promises. I believe it is entirely possible that this story could spin off a II or even a III in the same way that The Godfather did.

Be forewarned: This is NOT a film for weak stomachs. I rarely turn away from the screen, but found myself shutting my eyes to block out some of the more violent images.

I need more time to decide how I feel about this film. I often say that I think the purpose of fiction is to evoke emotion. Eastern Promises certainly evoked emotion in me. However, I think it will take a second viewing before I know how I feel about entire experience.

Here's the trailer for the film, which is still in limited release.

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