Thursday, November 1, 2007
The following column is reprinted from the Novevember issue of Providence Monthly
Eyes Wide Open
by Scott Duhamel
Slowly and surely Viggo Mortensen is transforming into the kind of Hollywood acting firmament that we see far too little of in contemporary movies. His persona shifts easily from a square-jawed Midwesterner to a California biker boy to the first born of American immigrants, and he can carry a film with just his looks and his eyes, maybe a few gestures and meaningful glances. If you can excuse the time-machine hyperbole, one can effortlessly paint his cinematic antecedents—an Eastwood-gone-hippie, a less boozy Mitchum, the dark side of Kirk Douglas, you pick the smoldering macho man. Mortensen’s been at a while (he made his film debut in Witness in 1985) and has slowly ascended, most notably as the bad boy brother in The Indian Runner (’91), the lover boy in A Perfect Murder (’98), the counter culture lover boy in A Walk on the Moon (’98), the drying-out lover boy in 28 Days (’00), the middle-earth rock star Aragon in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy (‘01-‘03), old-fashioned hero in Hidalgo (‘04), and, most recently, as the everyman-with-a-past in David Cronenberg’s The History of Violence (’05). Mortensen, again teamed with the venerated Cronenberg in their new intense and veracious thriller, Eastern Promises, fully emerges as both actor and unmistakable cinematic shooting star.
Eastern Promises is set in and among the Russian émigré community in contempo London. Mortensen is Nikolia, the stone-faced, upwardly mobile driver for the elegant old world Russian mob boss and restauranter Seymon (Armen Mueller-Stahl), all manners and rectitude concealing an utter malevolence, and his dissolute, insolent, and given-to-drink son Kirill (Vincent Cassel, dripping with odiousness). When mid-wife Anna Khitrova (Namoi Watts), a Brit born but Russian descendant, finds a diary scrawled in Russian left behind by a just dead 14-year-old mother covered in track marks, it leads her right into the belly of the beast.
Eastern Promises is an unadorned genre film-a gangland thriller, and the seasoned Cronenberg cuts through the genre’s expectations with a seductive confidence. Cronenberg’s longtime predilection for the exploration of the flesh (as continually evidenced in films as disparate as Videodrome, Dead Ringers, The Fly, Crash, Naked Lunch, Spider) is put to good effect, very much in the subtle-but-shocking manner it was A History of Violence. The violence and sex on display is clinically explicit, all of it unfolding as just another element in a brutal, gray world, rife with corruption and slithering with old world inhumanity.
The film’s deus ex machina is an astonishingly punishing fight that occurs in the quietude of a Russian steam bath. The chiseled Nikolai, his face and body as angular and hardened as the tiles he walks upon, is set upon by two Chechens from the hinterlands, puffy villagers clad in leather jackets and clutching small, sharp tile knifes, in daunting sequence that is grimly outrageous, highly exploitative, and a pure adrenaline rush.Oh, and Viggo-as- Nikolia does his mano a mano thang naked, too.
Cronenberg delivers Eastern Promises with a compact and fully realized arc, although the finale (again, much like A History of Violence) is somewhat disaffecting-a muted whimper rather than a snap,crackle, pop bang. Despite the structure of straightforward, uncontrived propulsion that Cronenberg utilizes, Eastern Promises is an exercise in genre that is really about peeling away the edges, stripping away the layers until one is left naked and instinctual. The movie glides along while hinting and probing at secrets and deceptions, and Mortensen’s central figure stands firmly astride it all, mostly silent, occasionally tart, and weirdly civil. It’s a wondrous performance, made all the better but the sheer effortlessness the actor displays.