A London midwife delivers a baby for a dying teenage prostitute. When she attempts to find the family of the child, she finds herself dealing with a violent Russian mob family.
I know I say this in pretty much every one of my Cronenberg reviews, but man! I love Cronenberg! I first saw this film a few years after it came out, back when I had just graduated high school, and I remember really liking it, but never really going back to rewatch it again for whatever reason. Recently, there have been rumors of a sequel to this movie, and when I first heard that, I was a bit confused. Furthermore, the rumors say that the sequel will be done without Croneneberg or Mortensen’s involvement… That’s essentially a non-sequel in my opinion, but nevertheless, I felt as if I needed to revisit this film to see if a) the movie held up to what I remembered, and b) if a sequel would be necessary (it’s not necessary without Viggo or Cronenberg- I knew that before going in, but a rewatch has completely convinced me how stupid it would be to make one).
“I can’t become king if someone else already sits on the throne.”
After a teenager dies in childbirth, the midwife who delivered her, Anna (Naomi Watts, King Kong), uses the teenager’s diary to try to find the child’s kin, but it leads her into dealings with a Russian crime family. Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl, Knight of Cups), head of the family, offers to translate the Russian diary for Anna, but Anna becomes nervous that in the wrong hands, the diary could be extremely dangerous. Along the way, Anna encounters Semyon’s reckless son Kirill (Vincent Cassel, Black Swan) and his chauffeur Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen, LOTR: Fellowship of the Ring).
Alright, so… when we talk about mob movies, there are usually two categories (you could break them up more, but for the sake of argument just roll with me): you’ve got your ‘actiony’ mob movies like The Equalizer or John Wick, and then you’ve got your drama mob movies like Once Upon a Time in America or The Godfather. I’m not going to lie, if I’m in the right mood, I can enjoy both types of mob movies- crime films are something I just generally enjoy. This film falls into the drama category- there are some scenes with pretty graphic and brutal violence, but this is no Untouchables- there aren’t any shootouts on the stairwell of Grand Central station. The violence in this film is oftentimes grounded; slit throats behind closed doors, or assassination attempts when people are most vulnerable. This movie isn’t about making you feel exhilarated when you get to the action scenes- it’s about terrifying you by showing you the violence that these people are capable of.
One thing I love about the direction of this film is the amount of subtlety that goes into every scene- particularly the scenes in the restaurant owned by the family. Whenever Semyon talks to his son Kirill, Nikolai, or even Anna, we get a sense of danger. Almost every word he speaks seems to have a double meaning. One of my favorite scenes comes when Semyon talks to Nikolai and Kirill about something that went wrong earlier in the film, and as the three of them talk, it becomes incredibly apparent that Nikolai has his head on straighter than Kirill. The respect that Semyon ostensibly feels towards Nikolai is apparent almost immediately, and the tone of the scene switches without ever saying explicitly what happened. There are lots of moments like this, where the implication of the scene is more important than what happens in the scene itself. You have to pay attention to really catch everything, because not every detail is laid out for you on the surface. It makes you work for it, and those are the best kinds of films in my opinion.
Acting is another thing that is pretty fantastic in the movie. The leads are all great. Naomi Watts and Viggo are the standouts, though Mueller-Stahl absolutely holds his own as the ominous figurehead of the family. My only complaint as far as the acting goes is that Vincent Cassel really overacts in this movie. I usually don’t mind Cassel- I thought he was fine in Black Swan and even Ocean’s Twelve (though the film itself was subpar), but in this film his performance reminded me more of his subpar work in Brotherhood of the Wolf (a silly, schlocky French werewolf movie- though it does have some fun parts). He simply oversells nigh every line, to the point where some of the scenes become almost silly.
Aside from Cassel’s acting, I absolutely love every aspect of this movie. It’s a gritty, dark mob thriller with multiple layers set in a wonderfully complex world. Honestly, I’d go so far as to call this film The Godfather of Russian mob movies- at least, as far as English-speaking mob movies go (I can’t claim to be an expert on gangster films in general). If you like crime films, this one is a must see.
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