“A History of Violence” is one of my favorite films. Director David Cronenberg brings together a top-notch cast, including Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello as a married couple living in small town America who has to contend with some new and unexpected violence. William Hurt turns in an Oscar worthy performance as a mobster and Ed Harris is pretty scary as a determined gangster ready to extract revenge for past misdeeds. What makes “Violence” so great is Cronenberg’s ability to make everything seem so real. We believe Mortensen and Bello are married. They are sexy, happy, love each other, have kids they love, seem content. When the act of violence occurs, and Mortensen’s character becomes a hero, he earns unwanted media attention leading to a confrontation with the gangsters. As the danger escalates, and secrets are revealed, we care more and more about Mortensen’s and Bello’s characters. Is the film violent? Yes, but these scenes play a significant role in the overall story. Amazingly, “A History of Violence” is based on a graphic novel.
Cronenberg and Mortensen apparently liked working together so well they reteam for “Eastern Promises”.
Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife at a hospital in London, treats a young pregnant woman a few nights before Christmas. When the mother dies, the midwife looks through her belongings, trying to find the address of family, to care for the newborn child. All she finds is a diary filled with entries written in Russian and a business card for a restaurant called Trans-Siberian. The next day, she rides her motorcycle to this restaurant and meets the owner, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). He is preparing a large feast for his extended family but can spare a few moments. He listens to Anna’s story and is sorry he can’t help. Anna thanks him for his time and mentions she will have her uncle translate the girl’s diary, to see if they can find an address. Diary? Semyon tells her to bring the diary to him the next day, he will help translate it. As she leaves the restaurant, Anna meets Nikolai (Mortensen) and Kiril (Vincent Cassel). Kiril is the son of Semyon and considers himself the prince of the crime family his father has built. Nikolai is his friend, and a ‘driver’ for the organization. Anna realizes these people are part of the Russian mob, but continues to run into them, ignoring her mother’s pleas to stay away. As if the problem of the dead girl is not enough, Semyon must deal with Kiril’s murder of a Chechen gangster. How can he protect his son?
I read a story about “Eastern Promises” quoting Cronenberg disputing the film is very violent. His argument was something along the lines of “There are only three scenes of violence”. It’s enough, David. It’s enough. Cronenberg is a very good director, one of the most consistent working in film today. When he makes a film, he strives to make it as authentic as possible. If the film contains violence, he wants it to be authentic. Those three scenes are graphic, scary and very believable because they are portrayed in such a believable fashion. This is not the only aspect of the film worth mentioning, and the violence is an integral part of the story and these characters lives, but these scenes will linger in your memory for a while, much as they have mine. One scene in particular is so memorable, and something I am sure you have never seen before, that it might just become one of those scenes people keep referring to. It involves Nikolai fighting with some gangsters, in a steam bath, and Nikolai is buck-naked. Yes, Viggo Mortensen is buck-naked. I think I just sold a number of tickets. I want a commission.
But Cronenberg doesn’t shrink away from showing the consequences of violence. If someone gets slashed with a razor, they bleed. If someone gets punched, you almost feel it in your gut. Anyone who has seen any of Cronenberg’s other films realizes this is mild in comparison to some of the things he has showed in his earlier work. But it is no less effective considering his current films deal with more real people and their situations.
Cronenberg has really been exploring the relationships of his characters in his last few films, to a greater extent than he used to. Or perhaps his skill has developed to the point where these elements of his films seem to take a more prominent role. In either case, his films seem more human, the characters more vulnerable.
One such character is Nikolai, played by Viggo Mortensen. Mortensen’s roles in each of Cronenberg’s films are similar in one regard; each man has a streak of vulnerability. In “A History of Violence”, it is much more noticeable. In “Eastern Promises”, Nikolai is a tough guy, a ‘driver’ who processes their victims to make sure they are unidentifiable. But there are moments when we become aware of his vulnerability. When he meets Anna, he tries to protect her from what he knows is about to happen. He realizes she is an honest person, a nice person, and doesn’t belong in this world.
Nikolai’s vulnerability is almost always revealed just before or just after an act of violence which helps to show why he is so good at what he does, why he is such a ferocious fighter, determined to win. He has to prove he is a tough guy, to stay in this crowd.
As the film continues, we begin to learn little things about Nikolai, making him a more complex character. Nikolai is very interested in becoming a soldier for this ‘family’ and will do just about anything anyone tells him to. This means he has to listen to Kiril and follow his sometimes crazy, out of left field instructions. He also has to do whatever Semyon says, to prove he is a worthy addition to the family. But why is he so interested in joining this family?
Naomi Watts does a good job as Anna, the second generation Russian who is completely British. When she initially confronts this problem, she cares for the dead girl. But she goes beyond this, to try to help reunite her orphaned girl with family for more complex reasons. We learn she may have more in common with this girl, giving them a stronger bond, making her efforts more meaningful.
Anna lives with her mother (Sinead Cusack) who worries about her daughter’s involvement with these people. She knows they are part of the Vory V Zakone brotherhood and her late husband related stories about their notorious deeds. Her brother-in-law, Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski) is a more recent Russian immigrant and stays with them on a frequent basis. When he first learns of the diary, he takes a look through the pages and becomes horrified at what is described. He wants nothing to do with it. But then his interest gets the better of him. When he realizes whom the young lady was dealing with, he tries to protect Anna, as much as an old man can.
Armin Mueller- Stahl (“Avalon”, “The Music Box”, “Shine”) plays Semyon, the head of this organized crime family. His ornate, elaborate restaurant is both a sanctuary and a place to hold court. Filled with rich red velvet, silver place settings, huge paintings and tapestries, it looks like a restaurant that has been around a long, long time. How else could it make any money? But it also looks like a festive place, a place for family celebrations and parties. Semyon is the head of this empire and he reflects all of these images as well. He is the benevolent host, the stern businessman, and the dangerous head of a criminal organization.
Mueller – Stahl is very good, perhaps Best Supporting Actor good. Semyon is a man of many faces and Mueller – Stahl is able to portray these in a way making his character both more realistic and more interesting. When he first meets Anna, we realize he is holding back information, trying to see what she has. When he realizes she has the young girl’s diary, he tries to get it from her through friendly persuasion. He doesn’t want to harm her. But we know he could. He simply wants to protect himself, his family and his ‘family’. And we recognize that he will do whatever is necessary to do this.
Semyon is the head of the organized crime family, but has to play ambassador to the other people in the family. He has to pay heed to what they want and need. But if Semyon wants something done. It gets done. Semyon is an interesting character because Mueller – Stahl is able to make all of the different facets of his character known, yet in a subtle way.
And Semyon has to deal with his son, Kiril. Played by Vincent Cassel (“Read My Lips”, “Derailed”), Kiril is the least successful character. The most dramatic, he is also the most excitable, and can be seen as the most over dramatic. I get it. He is supposed to be immature, impulsive and insecure. But Cassel waves his arms around like a cartoon character. Kiril is over the top, but we also get it, a little, so this makes up for the over-the-top aspect, a little.
I have given a number of reasons in support of my claim that Cronenberg is one of the best filmmakers working today. Let me close with one last reason. As we watch “Eastern Promises”, a sly shift in the narrative happens. Actually, there are a few. In the hands of a less accomplished filmmaker, these moments would simply fall apart and make us groan. In “Eastern Promises”, they serve to excite the viewer of the possibilities. Naturally, to talk about either, and they are related, in a way, would spoil them. You shall have to experience them for yourselves.