*Eastern Promises (R)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
In movies about gangsters, you expect a lot of noise. Shouting and screaming, barrages of gunfire those sorts of things.
But that's not the case in Eastern Promises. Here, we have somber reflection, the lurking gray peril of an urban underbelly, shifting shifty glances and unspoken threats. Eastern Promises is almost silent even its title sounds like a shush. Its terror swells inexorably and unavoidably, like the ebb and flow of the Thames River, where much of this story takes place. And the slow creeping gloom lingers like a chill you can't shake.
It's with the quietest of hospital emergency-room scenes imaginable that the film opens. No doctors yell, no machines ping or bleep it's in that frosty calm that a 14-year-old girl dies just as her baby is born.
Midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) takes up the newborn's cause, seeking out the family of the unidentified teenager. A business card in the girl's bag leads her to a Russian restaurant run by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a man Anna can immediately tell is of a bad lot: He's got the stealthy aura about him of an old man who's survived a long time in a dangerous situation. At the restaurant, Anna also meets Semyon's son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel), a violent hothead held just barely in check by his driver and just-about friend, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen).
They're all members of the Russian mob that has its tendrils snaking deep into the sordid side of the city. And the more Anna learns about them and about their connection to the dead girl and the baby, the more she pushes back at their menace and the more we fear for what she's daring.
That fear has a strange and thrilling ebb and flow of its own, though, because we're never quite sure what to make of Nikolai, who becomes Anna's most regular contact with this particular gang. He delves into the most appalling tasks with relish, it seems, and yet declines to engage in some of the perks of his work that, we suspect, a man like him like what we believe him to be would consider the best benefits of his position.
Mortensen's portrayal of Nikolai is extraordinarily intense, as always, but filled with even more layers of irony and mystery than he's brought before. In his second pairing with director David Cronenberg, whom Mortensen collaborated with in 2005's A History of Violence, the actor is even more magnificently disturbing.
In one astonishing scene, two assailants armed with knives attack Nikolai at a very, um, exposed moment one that leaves Mortensen nearly as vulnerable as his character and reveals just how insanely dedicated Mortensen is to his craft. His performance and the gradations of uncertainty that he gives to Nikolai are part of what makes this one of the best movies ever about life in the mafia.
It must be said, though, that Mortensen and Cronenberg get a lot of help from the virtuoso script by Steven Knight (who wrote the grim and glorious Dirty Pretty Things). Paradoxes, incongruities and biting, quiet mockery abound here. Easter Promises' bumpy, uncomfortable ride of unpredictability constantly forces the viewer to reconsider everything that it is and everything that it says.
And that's a wonderful thing for a movie about gangsters to offer.