Thursday, January 10, 2008

10 Best Films of 2007: #3 - Eastern Promises

David Cronenberg re-teams with Viggo Mortensen to create one of the darkest, most bleak, and yes, interesting movies about the criminal underwold, I will not say organized crime, because these Russian mobsters don't seem all that organized. Family members kill important people without consulting their father (the head of the family) and alliances are made behind peoples back. Booze is not stolen, but purchased cheap, but possibly it could have been purchased even cheaper, and when they get the booze, they don't sell it for profit, they drink it. These quirks and undercutting of the traditional mobster film make this one of the better films on the subject to come along since Miller's Crossing.

The critics have been louder than the supporters for the film, claiming that Cronenberg is too interested in which bloody set piece he can set up next and not invested enough in the characters. I couldn’t disagree more. The film is meant to be cold. The film doesn't contain the family oriented scenes of the Corleone family of The Godfather. It doesn’t have the appealing mobsters from a film like Goodfellas. But what Cronenberg and Mortensen give us is a glimpse into a cold and methodical underworld where money or business, personal vendettas, and family, are not as important as looking out for yourself and maintaining the status quo in order to assure yourself you will be alive for the next meeting with the heads of the Russian mob.

I appreciated the coldness of the film, and yes even though the Naomi Watts character serves only one purpose, I didn’t seem to care. I was so enthralled by the vision of the Russian underworld and how cruel and matter-of-fact it is. And Mortensen’s performance as the driver Nikolai, is something that should be recognized with an Oscar nomination (if those awards meant anything anymore) as he creates a character that has no where to go and nothing to strive for, except wherever his bosses tell him to go and whatever they tell him to do. He is nameless and has no past (as well as no future), until he gets his one chance for a promotion within the family, and what follows is a scene that is so cold and calculated (and pretty awesome) that is might be one of the best things Cronenberg has ever filmed.

The typical themes are here for a Cronenberg film: the body as belonging to someone else, the decaying body, sex, violence, sex and violence together and many other of the classic Cronenberg touches that make this one of the best films of the year. It shares a common theme with the final two films on this list: the idea that life goes on beyond what we as audience members can see. An idea that brings no closure (and frustration for many) to the lives of these characters that we have invested in. By the end Nikolai is still immersed in the evil he has chosen.

(Spoiler alert!) As an undercover cop who has now gone all the way to become the head of the family, can he ever really go back? It reminded me a little of Donnie Brasco one of the more underrated mobster films. But Eastern Promises doesn’t offer up the tidy (although sad) ending of Donnie Brasco and we are not quite sure what the future holds for Nikolai, or if that’s even his real name. I liked that ambiguity and I liked the not knowing, I liked the coldness and the fact that the film makes you question the characters and tries to understand why as humans we make the choices we do (a theme prevalent in their previous film together A History of Violence) and then there is the not knowing, a theme especially shared by the final two films on this list.

Does Nikolai have to become just as evil in order to become head of the family, or do his actions by the end of the film show that he will still retain some of his conscience? The cold look on his face as the film cuts to black suggests otherwise, this is a man where going back is not an option. It’s a great film.


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