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The Russian Mafia In America:
Immigration, Culture, and Crime
by James O. Finckenauer
(In Paperback from Amazon)
. "Eastern Promises"

This superb mystery thriller does something that could go down as a first in the genre. When you have a story about an undercover agent who has infiltrated a Russian mob, you will usually experience it from his perspective or that of his enemy's. What's original in this case is how screenwriter Steve Knight and director David Cronenberg have fashioned a gut-gripping tale from the perspective of a third party who has no idea of the layers of secrecy and danger she's stepping into for the sake of a just-born infant's destiny.

When one of the mob prostitutes dies in childbirth at the local hospital, her baby survives and falls under the care of midwife Anna (Naomi Watts). Going through the mother's belongings, Anna discovers a diary secreted in the lining of her coat, and a business card from a local Russian restaurant. Going above and beyond the call of duty, Anna brings the package of clothing to the restaurant on her bike and her black leathers. As she steps off the cycle and approaches the door to what's obviously a plush, exclusive place of business, two thugs with Russian accents ogle and threaten her, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), the driver, and Kirill (Vincent Cassell) who disappear inside.

She knocks on the door and is met by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), an older gentleman with a velvety presence. When he learns why she's come, he invites her inside and very subtly interviews her while putting on a show of introducing her to his exclusive restaurant for the Russian rich. His game seems to be to find out just how much she knows. Her replies seem to erase any suspicions from his mind... until she mentions the diary. Almost without lifting an eyebrow, Semyon's interest level is aroused. With all the affable cool of a politician, he quickly offers to translate it for her and makes an appointment for her to return with it the next day.

She lives at home with mom Helen (Sinead Cusack) and her uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski), a perenially suspicious and critically demanding reprobate from Russia who claims prior attachment to the KGB. Understanding his niece's unpreparedness to deal with the gangsters, he tries to talk her into giving up the quest to find the baby's relatives and just allow the system to take care of the motherless infant. Obviously she won't, and after she brings a xeroxed copy of the diary to Semyon, and being protected from his son Kirill by the darkly styled, laconic Nikolai, Stepan proceeds to do a written translation of the diary.

Reading it, much becomes clear to Anna. She learns of the relationships in Semyon's Russian Mafia enterprise vory v zakone, whose restaurant and soft demeaner is cover for his trade in prostitution, drugs and murder. Kirill is his son and probable rapist/father of the baby. All of which confirms what we've been seeing going on within the organization, including the fact that Nikolai is far more dependable and effective for Semyon than his vicious and unpredictable son.

Watt's performance as the imperturbable do-gooder is like that of a concert soloist -- she makes it look so unrehearsed. She is consumate as the moral provocateur of the piece and its primary catalyst. While I put her on the highest pedestal of her craft since her astounding bipolarity in David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive", Mortensen's portrayal is the more astounding as the breakthrough here.

Fine as Mortensen was in "A History of Violence" (2005), his disciplined reserve and parsimonious revelation of the character's true involvement ("I'm just the driver"), as an innocent midwife threatens to unbalancehim on the brittle tightrope he's been walking, takes the nuances of his acting range a taut step of brilliance further. Besides, anyone who can steal some light from Watt's glow has to be shining with at least a bit of genius.

In fact, I see award nominations all over the place here--it is simply a crackling arthouse of talent in every craft. Mueller-Stahl's cleverness and power of domination may be his best role yet in a filmography that could be taken as a bible of a movie career. And Cassel's sociopathic amorality could not have had a more convincing interpretation. A brilliant villain and images of butchery that couldn't be mistaken for anything else if you were cannibalistic serial killer Jeffery Dahmer.

It would be hard to outdo the extremely graphic violence but Cronenberg manages it with a slightly remarkable fight for life in a Russian steam bath in which Mortensen is stark naked.

Add all that to the superb technical credits (cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, production designer Carol Spier, costume designer Denise Cronenberg, editor Ronald Sanders, composer Howard Shore) and I think I've just seen the best film of the year. It should be, at least, a nominee for the prestigious Oscar in that exalted category. The screenplay, that so masterfully begins with a seed of malevolence and slowly, bitingly unfolds the dimensions of its noxious and nourishing branches, is as much a sure bet for Best Screenplay Oscar as I've seen since "The Godfather."

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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(Howard Shore, composer)

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Not clear on which side of the law.

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