The Contenders

Release date: Sept. 21 Distributor: Focus Features

Over more than three decades, David Cronenberg has built an oeuvre of consistently outre works, ranging from intriguing psychological studies (“A History of Violence”) to the downright insidious (“Scanners”). Sooner or later, the Canadian helmer will have a date with Oscar.

While content operating in genre fringes, Cronenberg’s last few films, particularly “Eastern Promises,” have brought the helmer towards the more mainstream fold. This latest pic also marks a reunion between Cronenberg and “Violence” star Viggo Mortensen, playing a fundamentally good man who struggles to hold on to what is decent about him as he infiltrates the Russian Mob.

It’s a career highlight for Mortensen (best known for his Aragorn role in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy), who mastered a Russian accent while also modulating his character’s complex inner state. The movie’s now-notorious nude wrestling scene serves as a reminder of the degree to which the role requires the actor to lay bare his emotions as well.

Equally fascinating is Armin Mueller-Stahl’s turn as the film’s monstrous villain, who infuses such innocent gestures as tasting borscht and teaching his granddaughters to play violin with a sense of malice. Nominated once before for “Shine,” the actor composes a portrait of evil lurking just beneath the surface, while Vincent Cassel provides a crucial counterpoint as his hot-headed son. Naomi Watts’ midwife role, while solid, doesn’t quite plumb the same depths of her prior Oscar-nommed work.

“Violence” earned Academy attention for screenplay and supporting actor, and “Promises” could conceivably do the same. Oscar nominee Steven Knight (“Dirty Pretty Things”) penned the original script. Below-the-line work by Cronenberg regulars Peter Suschitzky (cinematography), Carol Spier (production design) and Stephan Dupuis (makeup) could also garner noms.

See photos, credits and more about ‘Eastern Promises’

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