Review: Eastern Promises (2007) *** 1/2

Eastern Promises
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)


8 thoughts on “Review: Eastern Promises (2007) *** 1/2

  1. I would hate to give away the plot of the film in my response (and since Mr Cronenberg has implored journalists to avoid doing that this time around, I won’t) but I will mention that I really, really like Mortenson’s performance even though I had some issues with his character as written. I also thought Watts was good but somewhat under-used although honestly, I think her scenes work as intended and it would likely have only been contrived and annoying had she been featured more.

    I guess my response is mixed too. On one hand, I can see the reasons why Cronenberg et al were attracted to the film, which on its face is just a simple crime thriller with a political edge. Clearly Cronenberg is very interested in the criminals as individuals and why they do what they do, not how they do it or what they do. His camera (and the script) is fascinated with their tatoos, a form of body modification used not only to brand their criminality but their criminal history.

    I was wondering what Cronenberg’s angle into the film would be (beyond the murky underworld of London the film operates in) and obviously, this body modification is a big part of it. But he’s also extremely interested in the lives of these immigrant Londoners, especially the rituals and trappings of the Russians. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that isn’t about food or cooking spend so much energy detailing the foods of its subjects. Very curious.

    Anyway, I’m still making up my mind about Eastern Promises. Thanks for the review Craig. You noted some things I completely missed.

  2. As a straight up crime thriller, I think it works really well, but there seemed to be all these other threads I have yet to be able to tie together.

    The tattoo business was interesting. It kind of fits in with the fascination/revulsion fetish he sometimes seems to have with the human body.

    I also wish Naomi ahd made a bigger impression. She was fine with what she had to work with, but she wasn’t as interesting of a character to begin with as Nikolai.

    I’ve never done my planned follow-up review for 3:10 to Yuma and I’d also like to do one for EP as well. In both cases I’d like to see them again.

  3. I think the side threads ARE the movie, and that Cronenberg is trying to be subversive by keeping the red herring in the spotlight, while the evil continues to at least partially allude us.

    I admire that ambition in the film, and the ending is perversely, daringly anti-climactic. The biggest problem for me though is that, red herring or not, the main plot thread of the film with Naomi Watts and the diary is boring and obvious. And face it guys, if all that hokey diary stuff were in say, a Paul Haggis movie, you wouldn’t give it the time of day.

    I LOVED VIggo Mortensen in this film, I think he really comes into his own here, but the third act surprise was perverse in a way that I don’t appreciate. It explains and simplifies in a way that I’m unaccustomed to when watching Cronenberg, and you can even feel his boredom with it as he stages it.

    The fight is as good as the hype has led me to believe. Overall I like it, but there are some problems.

  4. The narrative hasn’t exactly stuck with me and even at the time I wasn’t surprised by the turn of events. It’s the details that have lingered. The details and the ambiguity of Nikolai.

    If I could make something out of them in my mind, I’d be calling it a great film, but as I said in the review I’m a bit on the fence.

    Until Joel brought it to my attention, it hadn’t occurred to me that the writer also did Dirty Pretty Things which in its own was was also essentially about human life for sale within an immigrant community. What’s interesting is that DPT focused a lot more on the sociopolitical aspect of the story, but Cronenberg is up to something much more elusive. It’s like he’s interested in the texture and pattern of the thing more than the substance which makes it hard to dissect…yet still fascinating.

  5. Chuck’s right in that the diary is a bit of a McGuffin and a bit of narrative gimmickry. Honestly, I found the entire main thread of the film (pretty much everything involving Naomi Watts’ character) somewhat uninteresting once the film reached the halfway point. I guess I was hinting at this when I said I missed Watts but didn’t feel more scenes with her would have worked. I’m a huge Naomi Watts fan. I just like her, like watching her act, enjoy her on-screen. I’m the shlub that is still annoyed she didn’t walk away with the Oscar for her performance in Mulholland Drive. So forgive me if I sound like I’m pining for more of the main narrative thread here because really, I’m not. I just want more Naomi.

    But I digress. I CAN gauran-fucking-tee you that if Haggis were directing this not only would there have been a lot more diary scenes but that I would have found it pretentious and annoying. Cronenberg uses the diary as a narrative device but he’s not all that interested in it beyond it being a vehicle into the underworld of this London subculture. That’s what I find really exciting and interesting about Eastern Promises.

    Honestly, if there’s anything in Eastern Promises I would criticize it was the use of the voice-over. I thought that it was heavy-handed and unnecessary but it didn’t ruin anything for me and most of the time I just forgot it was even there.

    Viggo is the movie. He deserves an Oscar nom for his performance. I’m still surprised he made the character work and I’m even more surprised how far he was willing to take it. He does an astounding job with a fairly unlikable character and he doesn’t pull back or soften Nicholai at all. The last time I remember an A-list actor being this successful at playing the black hat is Samuel L Jackson as Ordell in Jackie Brown. I love Viggo’s turn as Aragorn but I honestly think I like Viggo Mortenson better as a bad guy. He just offers so many layers to the character.

    Anyway, the further I get from Eastern Promises the less my initial concerns seem to matter and the more I liked the movie.

  6. I’m going to largely repeat here something I’ve already said over on Chuck’s blog because, frankly, I don’t have that many ideas and I have to spread them around.

    Looking back at EP, I think it would’ve been interesting if there had been some doubt or conflict or amibiguity with Naomi’s character. Maybe even to the point where maybe she was a little drawn to or turned on by her exposure to the criminal underworld. She would’ve been a stronger counterpoint/compliment to Viggo’s character instead of just being a means to illuminate him.

    For all the Naomi fans especially (you know, those of you who will never forget that scene in Mulholland Drive where she turns the tables on Chad Everett in the audition and you suddenly realize she’s not at all the girl you thought she was…and you kind of like it) It would’ve made for a more satisfying movie.

    As it is, I think Cronenberg was more interested in Nikolai from the start. He’s a fascinating character, but it kind of leaves you wanting a little bit more.

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