January 14, 2008
Ever since his big budget remake of The Fly (1986), David Cronenberg has flirted with mainstream success. Known early on in his career as a provocative and original horror/science fiction filmmaker, he began to dabble in other genres with his adaptation of Naked Lunch (1991). Much to everyone’s surprise, he came back into the mainstream or, rather, the mainstream came back to him with A History of Violence (2005), which starred Viggo Mortensen as a mild-mannered store owner in Middle America with a shadowy past. He and Cronenberg worked so well together that they decided to continue their collaboration on the director’s next film, Eastern Promises (2007).
Anna (Watts) is a midwife who helps an unidentified woman give birth to a baby girl. During the operation, the woman dies and Anna finds a diary in the patient’s handbag. She takes it in the hopes of finding out the woman’s identity or next of kin. Instead, she finds a business card for a Russian restaurant. Anna meets with Semyon, the owner (Mueller-Stahl) and tells him about the diary and asks if he would translate it from Russian to English. Unbeknownst to her, Semyon is actually the head of a mob family and the diary contains incriminating evidence.
Over the course of her visits to the restaurant, Anna crosses paths with Nikolai (Mortensen), the mob family’s driver. Anna catches his eye and he even drives her home one rainy night when her motorcycle breaks down. Her life gets complicated when her Russian uncle (Skolimowski) begins to translate the diary and tells her that the deceased woman was a prostitute with ties to the Russian mafia.
Viggo Mortensen once again disappears into a role as a confident Russian gangster working his way up the mafia hierarchy. With his angular features, he looks like he was cut out of granite and affects a flawless accent. Mortensen instills Nikolai with an inherent intelligence – he’s no mindless brute but he can also apply lethal force when needed as evident in a vicious and bloody fight between him and two rival Russian mobsters who try to kill him in a bathhouse. Mortensen exudes quiet menace in every scene except when he is with Naomi Watts where he oozes a seductively dangerous charm. She is fine as the midwife who cares too much about the dead woman and her baby and this gets her in trouble when she gets involved with the Russian mafia. She’s our window into the exotic world of the mob but at the end of the day it is Nikolai’s story.
Vincent Cassel also delivers a wonderfully layered performance as Kirill, the Semyon’s son who is a bit of a loose cannon, much to his father’s chagrin. He’s also an amoral bully who feels the need to impose his will on those around him. However, Cassel makes him much more than a grinning psychopath. Kirill wants desperately to have his father’s respect but is too sloppy and erratic to be a truly effective gangster.
Eastern Promises provides fascinating insight into the customs and codes of the Russian mafia including the prison tattoos that adorn the gangster’s bodies, not only illustrating their life story but also gives them an identity in the eyes of their superiors. The film continues Cronenberg’s fascination with unusual subcultures – a thematic preoccupation from at least as far back as The Brood (1979) – and his examination of the effects and use of violence. When and is violence ever justified? In this respect, Eastern Promises serves as a companion piece, of sorts, to A History of Violence with uncompromising depictions of violence that is definitely not for the squeamish or faint of heart, but for those who can stomach it, they will be richly rewarded.
“Secrets and Stories” features Cronenberg and cast talking about the Russian mafia and the trafficking of young prostitutes. The director talks about his fascination with subcultures whether it is in science fiction or the Russian mob.
“Marked for Life” takes a look at the elaborate tattoos that adorn Nikolai’s body. In the Russian mafia, they are a mark of experience and give you credibility. Mortensen talks about he researched them and we see how they were applied to his body on a regular basis.