December 16, 2007

Eastern Promises review
Eastern Promises

Matt: Four and a half

Length: 100min


Every sin leaves a mark.

Précis: Graphic but intelligent gangster drama spotlights humans in an abnormal world.

Review by Matt:

Canadian auteur David Cronenberg has always brought an air of intelligence to his films, even when he’s ostensibly playing in the gross entrails of the horror genre. Throughout his career Cronenberg has consistently probed under the skin. His early films did this literally. Look through Cronenberg’s oeuvre and you’ll see all kinds of visceral invasions of bodily sanctity: venereal slugs, blood-sucking body augmentations, telepathic mind-fusing, human/insect hybrids, a disturbing sexual encounter with a television, and an even more disturbing sexual encounter with a leg wound (if you want to see these images then watch in order: They Came From Within, Rabid, Scanners, The Fly, Videodrome and Crash). In his recent films, Cronenberg has mostly eschewed the literal de-fleshing and instead figuratively probed under the skin, examining the shadowy side of society and human behaviour (and his departure from the horror genre has left it sadly drowning in unintelligent and brutal films). The well-received A History of Violence (2005) for example, ruminated on the capacity for violence in human nature. In his latest film, Eastern Promises, Cronenberg has teamed up again with actor Viggo Mortensen to make a powerful and draining film about Russian crime gangs lurking in darker parts of London. At this surface level, Eastern Promises is an enjoyable and thrilling film. But it is deceptively generic. Below the surface, Cronenberg has expertly constructed a philosophically savvy picture of the strengths and iniquities that lurk in the human character.

Eastern Promises wastes no time setting its fierce tone; the bloody opening scenes warn you of the dangerous world it is about to explore. Shortly after, we watch as nurse Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) starts venturing into the fringe of that dangerous world as she investigates the diary of a young Russian woman who died at her hospital leaving behind an orphan baby. With the grizzly opening still in our minds, the atmosphere is heavy as we watch Anna inquire at the restaurant of Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), ostensibly a friendly grandfather, but in reality the fearsome godfather of the Russian Vory V Zakone criminal syndicate. It isn’t long before Anna senses the menace too. But the diary is in Russian and Semyon is able to read it and see that it contains incriminating material. Worlds are colliding. Backing away for Anna suddenly might not be so easy.

That is, if she even wanted to back away. Cronenberg has given normalcy his typical twist and infused Anna with an unhealthy tenacity stemming from her own pain at losing a child. So she keeps battering at the perilous gate. The gatekeeper, and Anna’s primary contact point, is Nikolai (Mortensen), an aloof Ukranian working as the chauffeur for the gang. Nikolai is imperturbably calm and – seemingly at least – more trustworthy than his fellow crooks. Certainly he is more upright than Semyon’s wayward and wanton son Kirill (Vincent Cassel). Or is Nikolai the most dangerous of all of them? Just as Mortensen’s character was inscrutable in History of Violence, Nikolai is a well of mystery, morally ambiguous and frightening. Just like Anna, the audience can’t get a grip on Nikolai. Is he flirting or threatening? Mortensen’s stellar performance doesn’t just feed the mystery, it is the foundation. Aragorn and Middle Earth are light years away; it is as if Mortensen is channeling the sinister air straight out of Moscow’s dark alleys. The potent drama of Eastern Promises would certainly be diluted without the subtlety of Mortensen’s performance.

The film’s high point comes as the oppressive sense of threat (and the growing homoerotic sub-theme) cracks open in an incredible and raw fight scene in a London bath house. Cronenberg is forever punishing us with reminders of our human frailty – we’re so soft and easily pierced – and Eastern Promises assaults us again with a fight scene which so palpably generated a sense of vulnerability that I almost crawled off my seat to protect myself. You don’t need guns to inspire terror – the seedy world of assassins is sometimes content to get up close and dirty with box cutters (Cronenberg has said the choice of weaponry was at least partly inspired by the weapons used by the 9/11 hijackers). And as a twisted bonus – do you want to see Viggo Mortensen naked? Here’s your chance. You might just want to look through your hands though.

Where does it all end, this swirling cloud of wickedness, mystery and corporeal peril? Cronenberg stamps a clear moral denouement on Eastern Promises. Perhaps he does this a little too neatly though; the moralizing seems a bit unfulfilling after a ride through society’s dirty complexities. It’s maybe not for everyone – especially the squeamish – but Eastern Promises is infused with David Cronenberg’s original, mature, and slightly macabre style and, as always, he’s provided much to glue an audience to their seats, and much for them to ponder when it’s over.



  1. Awesome movie.

  2. very interesting.
    i’m adding in RSS Reader

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