A film review by Craig J. Koban

EASTERN PROMISES jjj
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2007, R, 96 mins.

Nikolai: Viggo Mortensen / Anna: Naomi Watts / Kirill: Vincent Cassel / Semyon: Armin Mueller-Stahl / Helen: Sinead Cusack / Stepan: Jerzy Skolimowski / Yuri: Donald Sumpter

Directed by David Cronenberg / Written by Steven Knight

Canadian born director David Cronenberg has always been a master storyteller when it comes to horror stories.  Some of his most memorable works explored people’s fears and anxieties with transformation, whether it be of a physical or mental nature.  Efforts like THE FLY obviously reflected a more bodily transformation, whereas some of Cronenberg’s other noteworthy works, like CRASH, dealt with the oftentimes sickening sexual appetites of its characters.  That’s the Cronenberg touch: He is able to polarize and shock audiences with his extreme and unflinching manner of looking at subject matter that others would not dare touch.

Despite the fact that he has decidedly gone into a much more commercial realm with his recent films, they still nevertheless maintain some of the staple elements of Cronenberg cinema: Tortured and flawed characters plagued by external and internal calamites, not to mention his penchant for shockingly brutal and in-your-face violence and sexuality.  2005's A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE was easily the auteur’s most populist entertainment, not to mention the most heavily financed of his career up until that point.  Despite that, the film worked exceptionally well as a toned down psychological horror story that concerned itself with the inner demons of its main character.  It dealt with the issues of personal identity and coming to gripes with your past.

Now comes EASTERN PROMISES, which I think sort of embellishes and fine tunes some of the prevalent themes that were contained in A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE.  In terms of story, the two films could not be any different.  VIOLENCE was more of a low key, small town morality parable, whereas EASTERN PROMISES has more expansive settings and personas: it’s located atypically outside of Cronenberg’s main filming stomping grounds and marks the first time he has shot a film outside of Canada (it its case, England) and it features the Russian mob.  However, the film also deals with subtle issues of honor, loyalty, and one man’s dilemma with dealing with right and wrong.  As strong and invigorating character pieces, EASTERN PROMISES represents another film that deals with the cohabitation between human conscience and crime.  In a way, the film makes for an interesting companion piece to VIOLENCE.  More importantly, both revel in Cronenberg’s own insatiable obsession with the material.  To say that PROMISES is another step in the mainstreaming of his films is kind of foolhardy.  If you look closely, Cronenberg’s esoteric fingertips are all over this film.

Perhaps even more crucial is the fact that this film is yet another successful re-teaming of Viggo Mortensen and the director, who both collaborated to much critical accolades in VIOLENCE.  However terrific Mortensen was in their previous outing, he all but solidifies himself up for an Oscar nomination with his performance as Nikolai, a driver and runner for the Russian mob.  At first, Mortenson would seem like the least plausible Russian and in the first few moments in the film he is sort of stiff in his mannerisms and accent.  Yet, as the film progresses and lures you into its story, so does Mortensen’s performance, which reveals a calm, soft spoken, introverted intensity and ferocity.  Wisely not playing up to ethnic stereotypes, Mortensen crafts such an dynamic and vigorous performance that he all but loses himself in the part to the point where you readily accept him as a Russian.  That’s what great actors do: they ask for and get your investment in their characters.  Mortensen is no exception here and - with his work in VIOLENCE - he is starting to seriously cement himself as one of the elite actors of his generation.  Not only that, but he unequivocally showcases no instance of vanity in a show-stopping fight scene late in the film that will go down as one of the finest ever.  More on that later.

The film assaults you from the very beginning in ways only Cronenberg can muster.  It opens with a scene of brutality where we see the viscous throat slashing involving players of an underground Russian mafia that operates in London (other films would have shown the throat cutting quickly, but Cronenberg has his characters methodically saw the jugular like a piece of meat).  This event is juxtaposed with a mysterious young woman that collapses in a drugstore.  She is pregnant and is rushed to a nearby hospital. She dies giving birth to her baby and the newborn becomes a bit of an obsession for the midwife, Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts, in another great performance).  She makes it her personal mission to protect the baby as if it were her own.  Things get a bit complicated when she stumbles upon the dead woman’s diary, but she is unable to read it due primarily of the fact that it is written in Russian.

Luckily, she resides with her Russian born mother and uncle (Sinead Cusack and Jerry Skolimowski), who assist her with transcribing the writings of this woman.  Eventually, the diary talks her on a journey to a local restaurant run by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who appears to her initially as a kind, decent minded old man.  Yet, what she is not immediately aware of is that he is the brutal kingpin to the London Russian mob (the restaurant is just a respectable hood placed over the reality of his real business).  Of course, Anna’s uncle pleads with her to go nowhere near Semyon, seeing as that allowing herself to be in alignment with the mob could lead to nothing but trouble.  At any rate, Anna’s compulsion to find answers overrides all logic and common sense.

Maybe her uncle has a point.  Semyon’s empire is aided by his vile and reprehensible son, Kirill (played with remarkable creepiness by Vincent Cassel) and a quietly charismatic - but violent and lethal - driver named Nikolai (Mortensen).  Nikolai is fiercely loyal, but as the story progresses we grow to learn that he has his own secrets, which eventually leads to his yearning to topple Seymon’s thrown and replace him as the king of the Russian underground.  All of this coalesces with the story of Anna and her quest to uncover the secrets of the baby’s mother and true heritage, which inevitably leads to Nikolai and the mob he works for.

At face value, EASTERN PROMISES feels like its made out of overtly familiar elements.  We have the typical ragtag group of mobsters and most of the standard elements that have been the center of countless other mob films; EASTERN PROMISES does not supplant the other great gangster films, like THE GODFATHER and GOODFELLAS, from the perspective of its handling of the mafia.  What is interesting is how it deals with some of the subtle aspects of Russian mob life.  Cronenberg is not too particularly fascinated with the underlining composition of mobsters, but he is intoxicated by the nature of these men, who are constantly living in a state of transgression and despair.  Their lives are accentuated both by loyalty and deception, both from within and outside the organization.  Again, EASTERN PROMISES works better by honing in on the psychology of what makes these men tick rather than being a diatribe about how these men are organized and how they operate.

The film is also pure Cronenberg with his precise handling of the characters and his meticulous ability to harbor a distinct undercurrent of dread and tension to the proceedings.  He does a virtuoso job and laying the framework of Anna’s story and how her own past inextricably feeds her obsession to protect that baby and learn the secrets of his parents.  Cronenberg layers this in smoothly with Nikolai’s story and his own dealings with the mob he works for.  Nikolai is both a curious compliment and foil to Anna.  He occupies a world that is altogether foreign to her, but they both are driven by compulsions that dictate their actions.  Nikolai’s story becomes even more layered and engaging when a marked twist in his story comes before the final act.  The twist is neither totally shocking nor completely expected.  This is a testament to Cronenberg’s handling of the forward momentum of the story, where we don’t allow ourselves the option of trying to predict any 180 degree turns because we are so transfixed in the characters and interplay.

Like his past efforts, EASTERN PROMISES does not shy away from Cronenberg’s predilection towards gore.  Although the film is relatively light of carnage, a few moments will make the squeamish cover their eyes.  Then there is the film’s remarkable, tour-de-force fight between a butt-naked Nikolai and two Russian mafia goons in a bath house that I guarantee will be long remembered.  What’s astounding here is not only the brutality of the scene, but its raw realism.  Not only does Mortenson play the scene completely in the buff (with oodles of full frontal nude shots of his manhood flailing around), but it becomes clear that no stuntmen where used.  That’s the naked visage of Mortenson being thrown - without padding - against tile walls and floors.  He and the other actors trained for months and choreographed and performed the scenes without stuntmen (the scene alone took two days to film).  It’s one of the most ambitious, audacious, shocking, and incredibly realized bit of fisticuffs I’ve seen on screen.

Through and through, EASTERN PROMISES is Cronenberg’s and Mortensen’s film to shine.  For Cronenberg, the film marks another thoroughly entrancing "mainstream" effort on his part that still brims with his trademark leanings towards ethereal menace and tension, sexually perverse imagery, violent excesses, and characters that constantly deal with their own introverted crisis.  For Mortensen, the film shows him at the top of his form in a pitch-perfect performance as a Russian mobster that modulates between quiet menace and tenderness; he has truly come to form here.  Hopefully, the Mortrensen/Cronenberg collaboration will continue on in future efforts, because EASTERN PROMISES is such a precisely calibrated and accomplished mob thriller.  It establishes a complexity and assertiveness with its material that many other genre films fail to muster.  The film almost transcends its mob elements and essentially becomes a parable about twisted human nature and compulsion, not to mention dealing with the idea of whether morality can exist - or be found - in a savage and uncompromising world.

Pure Cronenberg, indeed.

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