Eastern Promises April 20, 2015
Mob loyalty has nothing to do with familial ties, brotherhood, emotional neediness, or any other term that might suggest a genuine, true bond — mob loyalty has to do with fear, a four-letter word written in the blood of a Benedict Arnold who just had his throat cut.
Coincidentally, Eastern Promises, a mob film, opens with an enemy getting their neck cut open, with all the subtlety of exceptionally over-the-top porno. This event is crossed and eventually revealed to be connected with the death of Tatiana, a murdered (and pregnant) 14-year-old girl. Perhaps it’s needed for Eastern Promises to introduce itself with these ugly events — they prepare us for the stirring brutality to follow.
Tatiana’s nurse, Anna (Naomi Watts), is understandably disturbed by the tragedy; only the baby is saved, the mother damaged beyond belief. Desperate to find out who would have wanted to harm Tatiana, Anna fortunately finds her patient’s diary, with a bookmark leading to the local Trans-Siberian Restaurant. There, she meets Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the aging owner she initially believes to be a friendly sort. As she gets more and more involved, though, Anna finds that she is no longer just a woman trying to make right; she has become a woman that has angered a nasty crime syndicate that will stop at nothing to prevent disorder from befalling their meticulous system.
Eastern Promises also involves Semyon’s driver, Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen), whose scrappy but slick deliverance (and tolerance) of violence finds him climbing the rankings of the blood-stained organization like a knife wielding vampire warrior.
David Cronenberg began his career as a horror maven with a creepy fixation on fantastical bodily destruction, and though he still isn’t afraid to throw around explicit shots of murderous injury, he has matured, aging from a kid fascinated by the fears of delusion to a wise filmmaker who amplifies unease in the scope of grimy reality. Eastern Promises is one of his best movies, a more psychotic peer to Coppola’s The Godfather. Whereas The Godfather lined itself in foreboding placidity, ready to erupt at the nearest mini-climax, Eastern Promises is like a panther on the prowl, searching for the slightest misdemeanor, delighting in its punishment.
There is humanity to be found, mostly through the increasingly fearful Anna and her anxious family, but Eastern Promises is a captivating thriller mesmerized by the businesslike manner violence is so frequently carried through. The mafia calls for hits, retributions, and silences; a murder has nothing to do with emotion, but with order.
Any chance of derailment could result in the downfall of the structure these Russians have so carefully built from scratch. Sex trafficking also exists in their world (upsettingly, but honestly so); is it possible that the old ideals of finding a better life in a wealthy country can survive here? The film pushes its characters far enough to make them wonder just how long they can continue on a path that can only end in premature death.
Though he begins a secondary character, Nikolai eventually becomes the most magnetic character in Eastern Promises, quickly brought up in the ranks and progressively pushed into situations only a grizzled veteran would be able to handle. Mortensen’s performance is simultaneously foreboding and inexplicably heroic;. In his best scene, he ferociously fights two hit men to the death in a bathhouse, his only clothing coming in the form of his numerous tattoos. The brawl is vicious and lethal – every hit is intensified, not only because Nikolai has no armor, but also because it tests the boundaries he probably never thought about overcoming.
If not for Watts’ delicate performance, Eastern Promises would cannibalize itself within its fortress of carnage; she serves as the film’s most optimistic aspect, standing as one of the too few characters who will make it out of the story alive. With its balance of character study, criminal fixation, and lingering humanity, Eastern Promises is a successfully ambitious mob film that acts as a career best for the always engrossing Cronenberg. A-