Eastern Promises

(UK/Canada/USA - 2007)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Sinead Cusack, Jerzy Skolimowski
Genre: Crime/Drama/Thriller
Director: David Cronenberg
Screenplay: Steven Knight
Cinematography: Peter Suschitzky
Composer: Howard Shore

Inner turmoil may have a physical manifestation depending upon the genre David Cronenberg chooses to work in, but the director consistently mines the depths of the very complicated and contradictory beings known as humans. Cronenberg’s films of the 2000’s have been more grounded than in the past, realism stripping the metaphoric ambiguity that made films such as The Brood, Scanners, The Fly, Videodrome, Naked Lunch, and eXistenZ so interesting. Moving toward minimalism, interior conflict is maddening in Spider and pre-programmed role playing in A History of Violence. Eastern Promises maintains the role playing aspect, but away from down home small town America the stakes are much graver, leading to the gangsters taking cryptically suppressing the real them ultra seriously.

One advantage of the sci-fi genre is it lends the author a great deal of creative license. I didn’t have to believe that as I’m writing this my neighbors could be channeling their mental power to blow each other’s heads up to believe in the conclusion of Scanners because Cronenberg had created his own world and made the material take on a life of its own. Exceptional cinematography Peter Suschitzky uses the blue-gray palette of rainy London to evoke a hazy, subdued, and depressed atmosphere for Eastern Promises, but while the muted style certainly helps render the deceptive simplicity of the duplicitous characters, it also clearly grounds the film in the real of the very real. That could easily be an improvement, as the King of Venereal Horror’s most realistic tale of terror, Dead Ringers, was also his greatest. Lending further credence to the great potential for a realistic classic is the fact that screenwriter Steven Knight already proved to possess a great understanding of London’s crime and immigrant subcultures where tender flesh is a valuable but replaceable commodity in Stephen Frears last worthwhile film Dirty Pretty Things.

There are many excellent aspects to Eastern Promises, starting with the fact it rescues gangsters films from the land of cool and charismatic men who would be fun to have a drink with, at least if they didn’t decide to bash your skull in. Cronenberg has removed all glamour and sentiment. Everything is very precise and matter of fact with the “driver” Nikokai (Viggo Mortensen) being so used to his routine of cleaning up dead bodies he can chop fingers off a man with no more discomfort than if he were preparing a salad. Far more believable than A History of Violence, Eastern Promises was carefully prepared to exist in the real world rather than the somewhat condescending movie world of A History of Violence. With the exception of insecure, hot-headed godfather’s son Kirill (Vincent Cassel), who is always grasping for a way to live up to his father Semyon’s (Armin Mueller-Stahl) expectations, it’s a very toned down, poker- faced look at the ethics and code of the secret Russian Mafia society.

Loyalty is the key to mob life, so the material is very conducive to the theme of removing expectations. There’s seemingly no message to the film, which shows the skill that went into making it, as it doesn’t feel as if Cronenberg is out to show “monsters” have morals and values. Rather than relying on sentiment and pre-programmed reactions as the usual Hostess Twinkie movies do, there’s a sense of discovery to all we learn about the characters because the filmmakers seem to simply be conveying their own knowledge and discovery rather than out to force the audience to accept it. Eastern Promises is an emotional film, but it’s a world where emotion is subdued and humanity is hidden, all taking a back seat to a unique set of preimposed rules of conduct. The culture of stealthful maneuvering may render Nikolai externally cold and as expressive as a block, but that’s what makes him interesting, as internally he must still consider actions and results at some point.

Cronenberg presents the material as accurately and objectively as possible, but unfortunately Eastern Promises winds up being among his least believable films due to the eventual realization the film is nothing more than a mystery with the narrative being little more than a gimmick that serves the needs and functions of the moralist creators. You never feel as if you are being manipulated while watching Eastern Promises, but upon a certain revelation of one of Nikolai’s secrets, the ending largely became a given. It may take another 25 minutes for it to come, but when it does not only is the result no surprise, but far more disturbingly everything is wrapped up so quickly and easily. It doesn’t feel similar to the typical movie, that they wanted to get it over with so they could and provide the audience with a happy and redemptive enough ending (to what in this case is an the otherwise suitably grim tale), but rather as though they had to surprise you with the abruptness of the ending to distract you from considering the specifics and what the film lacked.

That surprise is a goal at all makes it a lesser Cronenberg, as everything he’s done since The Brood grows through reflection. Films such as Videodrome, Naked Lunch, and eXistenZ could be discussed and debated endlessly, but M. Butterfly is the most relevant because it was very nearly a masterpiece despite, or more accurately because of the fact everyone knew Song Liling was a man.

The mystery of Spider was not only more difficult to solve than in Eastern Promises, but far more importantly there were far reaching implications to the results. Eastern Promises seems to me a film about discovery, and thus mystery that ends upon solving. It’s not a movie where the mystery is the be and end all like some M. Night Schlockmalan dreck, but even being one that satisfactorily wraps things up and sends your mind off to the next movie is a disappointment. In many senses, I do appreciate the abruptness of the finale. Certainly, I’m glad they didn’t tack on a lot of needless exposition about the future, but if there’s one thing mob leaders are good at it’s maintaining their power as long as they are alive, yet the final maneuvers, which Cronenberg makes a statement with through the avoidance of violence despite a history of it, seem as effortless as it would be for grand master Garry Kasparov to dispose of me in chess.

Similar to David Cronenberg’s best work, Eastern Promises is a clever and efficient film that sneaks up on the audience as it pulls back the layers of a character. Unfortunately, it often fails to take on meaning in doing so. In masterpieces such as eXistenZ and Spider, the audience is left to comprehend the complicated nuances, but with philosophy yielding Eastern Promises is just another genre entry that only leaves you wondering if that’s really all there was because Cronenberg hasn’t made a film you could simply write off since the 1970’s. Right now I’m still thinking I should rewatch Eastern Promises, my mind must have been elsewhere or I must have been in a bad mood or something. Certainly the problem every great director faces is their fans hold them to the standard of their best film(s), and try to box them in. Almost every Orson Welles film was panned because it wasn’t Citizen Kane even though very few plays have been more startlingly and effectively brought to the screen than Othello, Touch of Evil can at least hold it’s own with any film noir ever made, and F for Fake is among the best essay films.

I can easily live without the special effects, but it’s very difficult not to hold Cronenberg to his past glory considering he’s dealt with similar themes throughout his entire body of work. For instance, from the start of his career, Cronenberg has been interested in human’s annihilative tendencies, mutation and mutilation going hand in hand in his depictions of a culture of violence and sexual repression. The difference from Cronenberg’s past achievements can be summed up by his handling of the destruction of the flesh. In Crash, Cronenberg explored the reasons beyond the self-mutilation for the majority of the film, but in Eastern Promises Steven Knight simply explains them away, reducing it from theme to meaningless asides. Ritual scarification serves to establish and chronicle identity. With tribalism being co-opted by corporations as part of their packaged rebellion that serves as a soulless diversion from any cause to rebel, the intended or at least potential theme of living with the ceremonial brandings is reduced to little more than the usual costume design. There’s a good scene where a frozen corpse is thawed with a blow drying then the fingers are cut off, but it’s simply mutilation to remove identity. The much praised fight scene in the Turkish bath is one of the only legitimate movie fights of recent times, done by the real actors without requiring wires to make them magically fly, 3 million edits to mask their inability to do even the most basic sequence, and fast forward vision to ensure you’ll miss how phony it all is. The fight fits perfectly within the context of the film, generally restrained but with occasional brief bursts of brutal violence. The Chechan gangsters using a blade to slice and dice Nikolai shows the frailty of human flesh, its feebleness compared to what lies beneath, which provides the means for Nikolai to adapt and will himself to survival. Still, as good as the scene is, it simply comes and goes.

Most of Eastern Promises could hardly be better, yet Cronenberg’s body of work has been so exceptional that one major problem is enough to result in me ranking it as his worst since Fast Company. To a lesser extent, the success of A History of Violence hurts the film in that it prompted Cronenberg to return to similar material with the same star. The tone of Eastern Promises is entirely different, but when Viggo Mortensen starts out as the heartless gangster we imagine Joey Cusack to have been, as soon as we realize the characters are once again trying to suppress their true nature by acting opposite the warning bells go off. Perhaps Viggo won’t morph into Tom Stall, but no matter how good the film is minute for minute, it’s going to be hard to get away with trying to surprise anyone with twists.

Similar to Martin Scorsese’s films, Eastern Promises is often brilliant when it sticks to the gangsters, but suffers from the involvement of the token woman. Gangs would have been much better if Diaz’s Jenny Everdeane was Camarooned on Ellis Island. Naomi Watts is normally worlds better than Diaz is, but she was obviously miscast because for whatever reason she once again gives her Mulholland Drive performance. Part of the role calls for her to be tough but fragile as Maria Bello was in A History of Violence, but Bello was not only much better at it, that was also a far more Lynchian environment, poking fun at the yokels and poseurs. As the ordinary woman mixing with the hardened criminals, her work certainly provides quite a contrast, but we are smart enough to realize the naive good Samaritan is out of place without the constant reminders of her overly actorly performance that makes her feel out of place rather than her character. To make things worse, she seems about as half Russian as I do. That point is only made more painfully obvious by the fact all her scenes are either with Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski (Deep End, Moonlighting) as her ex-KGB uncle or Mortensen, who at least by movie standards are both exceptionally credible as Russians.

Eastern Promises is a better film than Gangs of New York, but what keeps it from being one of the best films of the year is not the actresses role or performance but rather the ridiculous idea of mixing saving a baby into the story of the gangster’s world. Everytime Anna (Naomi Watts) interjects herself into their sphere to try to get a contact address for the dead mother’s family that will prevent the orphan from being left to the mercy of the system, the story feels imposed and forced. I can believe that, needing a translator and not knowing a sharp dressed mobster from a businessman Anna could get the gangsters (more) involved, but continually forcing interaction with them defies all possibility, logic, and reason. I’m not a defender of the competence of perpetually underfunded social services, but when a mother who comes in drugged out and hemorrhaging kicks the bucket during childbirth the police normally notice and agencies usually get involved. If you start a crusade to unearth the baby’s relatives, even if you want to prevent the baby from being turned over as it should be, doesn’t it make more sense to not deal exclusively with people who might put a bullet in your head for looking at them in the wrong manner?

A History of Violence showed environment dictating human behavior with violence existing in all worlds because it was innate to American culture. Eastern Promises examines things from a more individual perspective, with good and evil more often being biproducts rather than goals. Anna tries so hard to do right by the current baby to assuage her guilt over what became of her own. Nikolai may help her at his own risk because he thinks there may be something in it for him that may make it worth it. It’s a world of retribution where sexuality is awkward and uncomfortable as in Dead Ringers and Crash and decisions are quickly made regardless of potential consequences. Anyone’s actions can be destructive or redemptive, often a combination of both though are primary values will choose which we decide to focus upon. If Uncle Stephan (Skolimowski) gets hurt it’s bad because he’s an ordinary person, a “good guy”, while if godfather Semyon or Kirill get hurt it’s no big deal because they’re bad guys. In the end, as long as it turns out well for the baby, any of those casualties would be chalked up to collateral damage and forgotten.

Viggo Mortensen’s performance can’t be expected to be as good a Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers and M. Butterfly or Ralph Fiennes in Spider, but he greatly improves upon his work in A History of Violence. Using his physical presence in new and more evolved ways, Mortensen not only postures and conceals his way to a career best performance, but also brings an introspective quality the film would fail without. Armin Mueller-Stahl steals most of the scenes he’s involved in as the seemingly tender and soft godfather who constantly pits people against each other for no good reason and privately conducts veiled conversations about killing ordinary people who could prove to be a nuisance. It’s not what Mueller-Stahl says, but rather that a mere glimmer in his eye carries endless weight.


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* Copyright 2007 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *