Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts in Eastern Promises (2007)
To outward appearances, the new film Eastern Promises is merely a simple and entertaining crime thriller. As we’ve learned to expect from director David Cronenberg however, there is more here percolating just below the surface. It’s in the details where Cronenberg’s real interests lie and, like his previous film A History of Violence, this is a crime thriller with something on its mind. The difference between the two films is that History offered a pretty straight forward (some would argue simplistic) meditation on the corrosive and lingering effects of violence, but Eastern Promises is more elusive; it’s message more closely held. The result is a potentially more rewarding film, but a difficult one that I admit I’m still a bit on the fence about after just one viewing.
Riddled with parallels and dichotomies, Eastern Promises begins with one no less momentous than that of life and death itself. There is a baby who should be dead but lives, and a Russian mobster who should not be murdered but is. These two simple, seemingly unrelated events set the story in motion and the imbalance they cause drives it forward.
Central to both threads is Kirill (Vincent Cassel), son of the head of one of the most powerful Russian mob families operating in London. The vortex caused by his unseemly behavior draws characters together who would normally never have known each other.
First there is the midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) who wants to find the family of the infant whose mother, a 14-year-old Russian prostitute, died in childbirth. There is also Kirill’s friend Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), a lower ranked gangster who aims to protect the impetuous Kirill from the repercussions caused by the murdered Russian mobster.
Both Anna and Nikolai are of Russian birth and living in London, but they are opposites in every respect. She’s a giver of life and he’s a killer. She’s been completely Anglicized and barely understands any Russian, while his English is thickly layered with a heavy accent. She has adapted to London. She’s a modern girl riding around the city on her scooter, a native. Nikolai meanwhile is still very much tied to the old world, his history and the rigid codes of mafia conduct are literally tattooed onto his body. She is the new world; he is the old. Despite their differences and seemingly contradictory motives (one seeks to expose and the other to protect), they’re nevertheless drawn together and both find themselves in great danger at the hands of Kirill’s powerful father Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a man whose kindly visage hides the true face of a ruthless killer.
Though the set up is simple, this is a carefully plotted film. It is puzzle-like, but it doesn’t come across as contrived. Events happen as they must, yet they don’t feel calculated or preordained. It’s as though Cronenberg has set the scenario up with one opposing force playing against another, and then is content to sit back and see whether Anna and Nikolai will be able to navigate the story’s dangerous terrain with its shifting goals, motives and obligations to emerge on the other side with their lives intact.
The result of all this is a unique and somewhat unconventional crime story. Although the situations and the trappings are familiar, they’re multithreaded and the details play out in unexpected ways, even if the ultimate result is no great surprise. In the process, some of the very conventions of the genre have been subverted. A typical movie of this sort probably would’ve emphasized a romance between Anna and Nikolai for example, but there is nothing more here than a hint of sparks between the two. Further, in a traditional thriller, the most vulnerable character would likely be the female, but here it is frequently Nikolai. In one of the more talked about scenes in the movie, Nikolai is attacked in a bathhouse by two knife wielding thugs. Wearing only a towel (at first), Nikolai has nothing to protect himself except his own physical strength and skill. It’s shocking, not because of the glimpses of male nudity, but because of the intense vulnerability of Mortensen as he fights for his life. It’s a conflict reduced to its brutal core: two men trying to kill one another, up close and personal.
Another key difference between Eastern Promises and other films like it is its slower pace. Rather than offering up pure suspense, it glides along, shark-like, filled with a lurking menace, punctuated by bursts of sudden, horrifying violence. Violence, by the way, makes a frequent appearance and the film gets off to a quick start with plenty of bloodshed. Life is cheap in Eastern Promises, but it is clung to tenaciously. Though a man can be killed for merely spreading a rumor about another man, he will not die easily or cleanly. This is not a film for the squeamish.
I should finish up with a final word about Viggo Mortensen and his character Nikolai. Naomi Watts is excellent as always as the earnest-but-out-of-her-element Anna; Vincent Cassel is nicely unpredictable as the slightly unhinged Kirill; and Armin Mueller-Stahl, seeming for all the world like your gentle Russian grandpa, oozes quiet danger; but it’s Mortensen who leaves the most lasting impression. As an audience, we’re trained to expect the star of a movie to be the good guy, but with Nikolai we’re never quite sure. Though he is capable of acts of inhuman horror, he also displays uncommon goodness. It’s tempting to root for him, but you’re also not sure if his apparent kindness is motivated by a sense of right or merely of self preservation. He’s a complex and ambiguous character and one of the pleasures of the film is trying to figure out exactly where he stands and what he’s thinking.
As I said at the beginning of this review, I found Eastern Promises to be a bit elusive. Though there is a lot going on here, I’m having a hard time getting an angle on it or grasping a through line that ties it all together. The result is that I can’t make up my mind whether it’s a great film or merely a good one with great parts. Good or great however, for now perhaps it’s enough to say that Eastern Promises lingers. Like one of Nikolai’s tattoos, it gets under your skin and leaves a mark.
Eastern Promises. Canada/UK 2007. Directed by David Cronenberg. Written by Steve Knight. Cinematography by Peter Suschitzky. Music score composed by Howard Shore. Starring Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Sinéad Cusack and Jerzy Skolimowski. 1 hour 40 minutes. Rated R for strong brutal and bloody violence, some graphic sexuality, language and nudity. 3.5 stars (out of 5)