"Eastern Promises" is a fantastic beginning to the fall movie season.
As the film began it dawned on me that it had literally been months since I'd seen a truly adult, mature film at the movies.
It's easy to forget the nature of today's film business. When you're stuck wandering around in the middle of the desert for months sometimes the fact that there's forest, plains, and mountains out there slips your mind. Most major films that come out today aim for that all-important 13-34 year-old age group. It's a demographic that may not be adolescent in age but is in terms of taste. And it's during the summer in particular when such films dominate.
Don't get me wrong, though. I'm no snobby elitist, obsessed with obscure subtitled pictures, ranting eloquently about the juvenilia of Hollywood. In the past few months we've seen plenty of examples of fantastic popcorn, escapist pictures of all kinds - penis-joke-extravaganza teen sex comedies, a-gun-blasting-in-each-hand action flicks, and blood-gushing horror movies.
But it's fall now and time for the complex, sophisticated films to have their turn as we move into Oscar Season. And "Eastern Promises" has set the bar quite high.
I went into "Eastern Promises" with a fairly blank slate and I think that's probably the best way to approach it. The story unfolds gradually. It involves Anna (Naomi Watts,) a London midwife, with a simple mission. A young, pregnant, unknown woman arrives in the emergency room and gives birth. The baby survives, she does not. All Anna wants is to find one of the child's relatives so the baby will not have to begin life as a ward of the state in the foster care system. Her only clue in her pursuit is a diary, written in Russian. As she reaches into the Russian community in London she stumbles across the Russian mafia where she meets the mysterious, compelling Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen.)
In a strange way the film is almost a serious, dramatic version of the recent cartoony action movie "Shoot 'Em Up." Both feature plots that unfold slowly, that revolve around an important baby, and involve a violent, ultra-cool man of mystery.
The similarities pretty much end there, though. "Eastern Promises" is a rich, deeply layered film. Watching it once, I felt as though I was only skimming the surface. I was only able to grasp and understand so much. All of the answers - about who these characters are, why they do what they do, what their world was like - are buried within the film and you have to do some digging to get to them. It's a film that requires multiple viewings to really begin to understand everything that's going on. Often these are the best films. It's a tricky act to attempt. A film that is ridiculously complex, tough to follow, and hard to understand is more frustrating than enticing. With "Eastern Promises," though, enough is understandable and revealed in the first viewing for the film to remain satisfying. It's a film worth taking the time to explore more fully.
"Eastern Promises" is one of the first films of the year with a he-damn-well-better-get-a-nomination performance. Mortensen's turn as Nikolai propels him into the realm of the greatest actors of his generation. Most people know Mortensen as the heroic Aragorn from "The Lord of the Rings." His performance here makes that broadsword-wielding good guy all but unrecognizable.
Along with a nod for Mortensen I would also hope director David Cronenberg earns a spot among the best director nominees. Cronenberg is a respected filmmaker with an odd reputation. Like David Lynch, he's an A-level director who makes "weird films." He's known for shocking pictures like "Naked Lunch," "Videodrome," and "Crash." (And that's not the recent Best Picture winner; it's an NC-17-rated movie about a group of people who get sexually aroused by being in horrific car accidents. Proceed with caution.) "Eastern Promises" demonstrates something that his early films do not. Most of the time, when dealing with Cronenberg, one is so overwhelmed and enthralled with his unique cinematic vision that one might miss his other strengths. He's one of those directors whose name means something. Call a film "Cronenbergian" and those who have seen his films will know exactly what you're talking about. With "Eastern Promises," though, you have Cronenberg doing an arguably "normal" film. Without the constant weirdness one notices just how fantastic and exciting a filmmaker Cronenberg is in all the elements of filmmaking. There is the startling beauty of his images - elegantly composed shots and perfect camera movement. And of course the amazing performances he pulls from his actors. (This is Cronenberg's second film in a row with Mortensen. Here's hoping that the two establish something of a Scorsese-De Niro relationship.) And, as emphasized already, his delicate, precise unfolding of the film's plot reveals Cronenberg as a master storyteller.
I sincerely hope that this fall "Eastern Promises" is the rule, not the exception. Next week, in addition to the usual film review, I'll be including a look ahead at the films opening in the coming weeks and months.