Short Review: There is exactly one too many naked men in this film – that is to say there’s a naked man in this film.
This is a brutal film and not for the queasy. The film opens with a gory throat slashing and then moves directly to a pregnant woman hemorrhaging at a convenience store. If this seems like a harsh way to open a film you can stop reading now, this isn’t the film for you.
The film showcases a family of Russian mobsters operating in London. Anna, a midwife (Naomi “how can someone so pretty be so boring” Watts) looks over a baby after the baby’s anonymous mother dies. Having only the mother’s diary (which is written in Russian) for identification, Anna decides to have a local Russian immigrant restaurateur translate the book. Unbeknownst to Anna, the restaurateur (Armin Mueller Stahl) is the head of a crime family and the dead girl is one of his sex slaves. Anna is quickly pulled into the web of the mobsters which includes the stoic Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). If you don't think this sounds like a compelling narrative, you’d be right. The story is rather flat, but the lack of a fantastic arc to the story lends more credibility to the piece in a certain way. This is a mob movie with all of the contrivances removed. Since it is devoid of stylized assassinations and gangland battles, we are left with a stark character piece that is all too willing to show the bad side of those involved.
Mortensen (Hidalgo) is the real treasure in the film and he commands over the other performances. His Nikolai is an intensely interesting yet utterly despicable character. This performance is a clear candidate for a best actor nod and deservedly so. The man is willing to make risky moves in his career. Following the Lord of the Rings Trilogy it is certain he could have written his own ticket and gone the usual Hollywood route. Mortensen has chosen a different path and followed with more complicated roles that reveal an actor more interested in making intelligent works than popcorn fluff.
This film reteams director David Cronenberg (Scanners, The Fly) and Mortensen. Much like their previous effort, A History of Violence, this film studies violent characters and the morally confused universes they inhabit. This piece is filled with harsh scenes of cruel people doing cruel things to one another. Many feel that violence in film is inherently a bad thing. In particular people despise the acts like the ones found in this movie which seem to fail to provide a clear moral denunciation of the violence. I disagree with this view provided there is context and meaning to the violence. The violence in the film is not stylized nor is it cinema friendly. There’s a sense of dreadful inevitability to every horrifying act. The criminals are predators and they do what predators are inclined to do – hunt, destroy and consume. When a man is murdered by an opposing mob family or when a woman is introduced into sexual slavery, it is treated as a natural act no different than the killing of a weak elk by a lion. Those who live by the sword die by the sword so those involved should be shocked when their time comes. Cronenberg orchestrates the adult content to full effect. An example of this is the movie’s most striking scene where Mortensen’s character Nikolai is attacked in a steam bath. Nikolai and his two assassins slash at each other with knives, wrestle and fight. During this Mortensen is completely naked. His full frontal nudity is difficult to view not only because…well…Aragon’s personal hobbit is on display – but because his nudity, in light of viciousness of the attack, serves to bring an uncomfortable vulnerability to the scene. Many will be disgusted by the violence and frank sexual content. Some will claim the adult content is unneeded or at least too casual. I’d argue that the seemingly gratuitous nature of the sex and violence replicates how gratuitous they are when performed in real life. In an age when Hollywood is all too willing to show girls being tortured to death on screen (Hostel, Saw II, Wolf Creek) without a meaningful moral structure condemning the acts, seeing a piece treating violence in such an honest fashion is almost a relief.
Again, this is a very harsh movie. The blunt view of violence and criminality will be too much for many audiences and makes this a hard film to fully recommend. If you are able to handle the rough stuff, you’ll find this an intelligent and striking film. If you have any concerns about the content at all you’re probably best served by simply skipping this one. It’s a good film but it’s not worth it if you have problems with raw material.
Cautions: Blood, gore, violence, frank sexual acts, there's tons to be cautious about here.
Worldview: In a way this film paints a valuable look at what sin can and will do when left to fester. Morality, when discarded, is a difficult thing to regain and impossible to hold when one doesn't turn from their sin. At one point Nikolai claims he died when he committed his first crime as a kid - he was right. Those who fail to cast their sins aside are the living dead and will find no peace.
Cross-posted at Good News Film Reviews