Eastern Promises

Eastern Promises

Film review by: Witney Seibold


            Famed Canadian director David Cronenberg has never been one to shy away from violence, and his newest, “Eastern Promises” is surely chock full of it. There are savage beatings, stabbings, throat-slashings and numerous other mutilations, mostly involving the cold and suave Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). The violence, though, is secondary to the complex inter-mob relationships between the family’s Don-like figure Seymon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), his hedonist son Kirill (Vincent Cassell), and Nikolai.  


            Kirill is set to inherit the family business from Seymon, but has given Seymon little reason to believe that he’ll do any sort of capable job, what with his constant drinking, joking, and visits to brothels. Nikolai is Kirill’s valet, and is very much the Jeeves to Kirill’s Bertie Wooster; Nikolai may not be much for conversation, but is handy with body disposal and linoleum knives, and is always coming up with the excuses and schemes for Kirill. Eventually Seymon is so impressed with Nikolai he wishes to “promote” him into the family. It’s hinted a few times that Kirill may be in love with Nikolai (despite one scene in which he forces Nikolai to have sex with a prostitute), or perhaps just needs someone stable in his life. Seymon has no problems with leaving his real son behind in the “rank” of the mob.


            These relationships are so fascinating that is almost doesn’t matter what the film’s real story is for extended stretches, and indeed the main character is ignored for a lot of it. The key into this mob world is an innocent and wounded midwife named Anna (Naomi Watts) who delivers the baby of a dead 14-year-old, and asks Seymon to translate a diary left behind. She lives with her mom (Sinéad Cusack) and old Russian uncle (Jerzy Skolimowski), who are also working to translate the diary. She quickly sees that the old-moneyed Russians with the quiet voices and the lavish parties are indeed organized criminals, but, thanks to that diary, has to keep going back to them (some of the Russians are mentioned in the diary). She unwittingly becomes embroiled in their affairs.


            The Russians, meanwhile, are carrying out revenge plots (the film opens with a revenge killing of startling explicitness), planning on shipping in drugs, and doing all the things we know mobsters to do.


            Everyone gives excellent performances, especially Mortensen, who adds a quiet dignity to the coldness in his killer’s eyes, and Mueller-Stahl, who seems capable if simultaneously being a doting grandfather and family man, and a man capable of beating you to death with his bare hands.


            “Eastern Promises” is an aggressively dreary film, and not just because of the violent subject matter. It looks gray and cold and foggy outside, and alternately antiseptic and grungy inside. Every body is fleshy and sweaty and bloody, and most of them are covered in tattoos. This is an aesthetic choice that Cronenberg has made in most of his films. The outside world is so cold, that the only place to retreat is into the cold, orifice-laden flesh of our own bodies. And even then, after delving inside (into slots and Umby-ports and transforming Mugwumps) using strange invasive devices (guns, tools, eXistenZ), we may still not find it.

             Much has been made of the brutal fight scene in a bath house where Mortensen does some serious damage while not wearing a stitch. It is indeed violent, although the nudity is hardly sensational. In fact, Mortensen, 49, is in excellent shape.

Published in: on October 2, 2007 at 7:57 pm  Leave a Comment  

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