Raw film keeps gory ‘Promises’ to audiences

David Cronenberg has the most socially aware fetish for carnage in Hollywood.

He is the man who savagely blew away half of Ed Harris’ face to show America’s infatuation with violence. He brutally turned Jeff Goldblum into a fly to express man’s disease of being finite. And he showed James Spader becoming sexually aroused by violent car crashes to show, from the point of view of that disease, man’s finite vices are fertilizing rather than destructive.

He is a director who, for more than 40 years, has soaked his conscious social commentary with blood and gore. In doing so, he has created one of the most impressive resumÈs of films of any director working in Hollywood today. Through his brutally unique style, he makes our vices more feasibly accessible rather than simply exploiting and condemning them. He raises questions but lets the audience answer them.

In the rainy alleys of London’s darkest corners, Cronenberg raises his latest questions with his new mesmerizing thriller, Eastern Promises. The film, Cronenberg’s latest offering of audience-accessible thrillers (following 2005’s A History of Violence), tells the complex story of an innocent midwife (Naomi Watts) who becomes entangled in a ruthless Russian crime family’s treacherous web of deceit and murder as well as the famiy’s mysteriously savage driver, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), who is ordered to deal with her potentially dangerous findings.

One of Cronenberg’s most mature and captivating films to date, Eastern Promises is a poor man’s Godfather – it’s a darker, grittier, nastier and more violent alternative to Francis Ford Coppola’s mafia classic. Though it might miss the epic grandeur of The Godfather, Cronenberg makes no excuses for his savage mobsters – they are brutally soulless monsters, creating a terrifying realism that remains inescapable from start to finish.

Still, the film is smart and compelling with every intricate plot twist and unexpected character development. Cronenberg not only manages to flesh out each character, he fleshes out each instant, providing chilling moments that haunt you long after you’ve left the theater. As always, Cronenberg finds a flawless balance between graphic violence and his social commentary – this particular time, on the complexity of modern society. He never jumps back and forth between the two, instead making one support the other. He makes both elements seamless.

As always, Cronenberg’s films rest on the rock of multiple solid performances from great actors at the top of their game. Most noticeably, Mortensen, as the quietly timid yet dangerously terrifying mob driver Nikolai, gives an Oscar-caliber performance of both restrained humility and fear. When you look into Mortensen’s eyes, you’re convinced that he’s come to terms with the fact that he’s condemned to eternal damnation and is living his life accordingly. His performance is chilling, mesmerizing and, perhaps, the greatest of his career.

Watts disappears behind the fearful apprehension of the innocent midwife who becomes more and more involved with the world of murder and lies as the seconds tick by. Both Vincent Cassel and Armin Mueller-Stahl turn in stellar performances, each holding their own and proving that this movie belongs to neither Mortensen nor Watts – this is an ensemble piece. Without any one of these pieces, the work as a whole would be incomplete. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Cronenberg’s latest is one more in the long line of his relentlessly brutal social commentaries that allows the audience to step back and try to separate themselves from the monsters on screen – and then relish in their horror when they realize they can’t. With every drop of blood, Eastern Promises also relishes (like all of Cronenberg’s work) in the purity of our own sinful vices. He proves that, in the end, no matter how hard you scrub the blood off your hands at the end of the day, no sin ever really goes away. Every sin comes back to haunt you. Every sin leaves a mark.

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