Director : David Cronenberg
Screenplay : Steve Knight
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : Viggo Mortensen (Nikolai), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Semyon), Vincent Cassel (Kirill), Naomi Watts (Anna), Sinead Cusack (Helen) and Jerzy Skolimowski (Stepan), Donald Sumpter (Yuri)
Eastern Promises is a superior genre exercise, a film that takes the broad parameters of the gangster film and reworks them into something that feels invigorating and new. The story is set in the dark world of expatriate Russian mobsters living in London, a fascinating twist on the conventional ethnic ghetto setting. It is a deeply insular world, and traditional issues of power and patriarchal authority remain firmly ensconced. Yet, it also seems to be a world on the brink of decay, too deeply embedded in an old worldview and increasingly encroached by law enforcement. There is little or no romance to be found here; it is a grim, brutal, bloody existence.
Director David Cronenberg, following his superb thriller A History of Violence (2005), establishes the ugliness of his setting in the film's shocking first scene, in which a man has his throat sliced (a better word would be “sawed”) with a straight razor while being held down in a barber chair. The scene serves the dual purpose of immediately baptizing us into the brutality that is to come and also establishing an important plot point that will carry through the rest of the film. In the gangster genre, no death goes unnoticed or, more importantly, unavenged. Violence is perpetually circular.
The narrative hinges on the diary of a teenage girl named Tatiana who stumbles into a pharmacy bleeding, and then later dies in the hospital while giving birth. The hospital's midwife, a London woman of Russian descent named Anna (Naomi Watts), takes it upon herself to discover who the young girl was in the hopes that her family can be located so her newborn daughter doesn't disappear into the system. This leads her to a restaurant owned by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who exudes a disturbing mixture of grandfatherly charm and seething menace (he reminded me, on many levels, of John Huston's loathsome Noah Cross in Roman Polanski's Chinatown).
Although she has her suspicions, Anna does not realize that Semyon is the head of the London branch of the Russian gang vory v zakone (it means “thieves in law”). She gives him a copy of Tatiana's diary to translate, which reveals information about his entire operation, including the antics of his hotheaded son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel). Kirill is watched over by Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), his hardened, stoic driver who aspires to be a “made” member of the family. Nikolai turns out to be the film's lynchpin character, as he maintains a steely outer façade that complicates his seemingly benevolent actions toward Anna, for whom he clearly has a soft spot. Yet, we are left wondering: Is he a violent brute who is (re)discovering some form of humanity in his dealing with Anna, or is he purposefully drawing her in as a way of keeping her close in case the family feels the need to knock her off for knowing too much?
It is questions like these that seethe at the core of Eastern Promises and keep us glued to the narrative. The characters are rich in their complexity, with no one clearly embodying absolute good or evil. Anna is the closest the film comes to representing purity, but even she has a somewhat troubled past that has driven her to live at home with her mother (Sinead Cusack) and bigoted, but ultimately sympathetic uncle (Jerzy Skolimowski), who claims to have worked for the KGB back in the day and knows exactly how dangerous the vory v zakone can be.
Yet, that danger has an allure, and part of Eastern Promises's grisly pleasure is the way it draws us into the details of the Russian mob--the meaning of the various tattoos on their bodies, the inner workings of the family as both business and blood relation, the always present role of history in the characters' mindsets, whether it be the antagonisms between the KGB and Russian criminals or the lasting scars, physical and psychological, of having spent time in a Siberian prison. Moreso than most crime films, Eastern Promises bears the heavy, omnipresent weight of history.
Being such an inherently violent genre, Cronenberg is immediately in his element, and he gives the film's various killings and brawls an intensity and raw physicality. The film's high point is a vicious battle in a steam bath in which Nikolai fends off two knife-wielding thugs. While his physical nakedness makes him seem all the more vulnerable (the whole thing is a set-up), he proves himself to be the toughest thug on the block. On the other hand, the scene that takes place in a brothel populated by drugged-out Russian émigrés who are little more than sex slaves is utterly heartbreaking and represents a level of touching humanism that many have accused Cronenberg's films of studiously lacking.
This is just one of many ways in which Eastern Promises, like Cronenberg's other films, is more complicated than it first appears (this has been evident from his very first gross-out horror films in the 1970s). In the past decade he has been moving into deeper psychological territory, and while Eastern Promises is a more direct genre exercise than, say, Spider (2003), it does not fail to intrigue on levels above and below the surface.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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