The fall film season—which more or less started with 3:10 to Yuma and The Brave One—bursts into full flower with David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, a work of amazing visceral power that makes it a shoo-in for one of 2007’s best films.
Having said that, I ought to make it clear that this is every inch a Cronenberg film. In other words, it’s dark; it’s violent; it’s uncomfortable. In this case, it’s also brilliant, but that doesn’t make it a film for everybody. It’s not for everyone primarily because of the violence, which is extraordinarily brutal even for Cronenberg. Interestingly, Cronenberg has gone on record saying he thinks his film is actually less violent than Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006). In terms of body count and casual violence, he’s probably right, but as concerns the type of violence and the depiction of that violence, The Departed is positively genteel by comparison. Cronenberg’s violence is unflinching, painful and bloody. Bear this in mind when making a decision about whether or not Eastern Promises belongs on your viewing list. If the answer is yes, then prepare yourself for a work by one of our great filmmakers at the peak of his power.
Though designed and promoted as an underworld thriller, Eastern Promises is considerably more than a simple thriller. This is a film that grabs you, holds you, and won’t let go. It’s a film that you carry around with you for days after seeing it—the kind of film experience that’s apt to draw you back for a second look and even more. Cronenberg has expressed a desire that critics not give away too much of the film’s storyline, and I can see why, and I intend to honor that desire as concerns the specifics of the story’s development.
It’s fair to say that the film concerns the efforts of a London midwife, Anna (Naomi Watts), to trace the family of a young woman who died in childbirth, with an eye toward saving the child from being placed in an orphanage. Her only clue is a diary in Russian and the business card for the Trans-Siberian Restaurant. Although of Russian descent herself, she doesn’t know the language and asks her Uncle Stepan (played by Polish writer-director Jerzy Skolimowski) to tackle the diary while she checks out the restaurant. The restaurant owner, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl, Shine), professes no knowledge of any such girl, but becomes agitated and eager to help when a diary is mentioned. This isn’t surprising since the restaurant is a front for a powerful sect of the Russian Mafia.
The film then charts Anna’s involvement with these shady figures of the underworld, especially with the mysterious Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), who acts as driver and caretaker for Semyon’s son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel). It also examines the relationships between the underworld figures themselves, which is perhaps where Cronenberg scores his greatest points. Being a Cronenberg film, it will come as no surprise that there’s a strong homoerotic subtext—concerning Nikolai and Kirill—but the lengths to which this aspect of the film is ultimately taken may surprise even seasoned Cronenberg fans.
For that matter, even those familiar with Cronenberg’s approach to violence may be shocked by the film’s set piece where the naked Mortensen is attacked by men brandishing linoleum knives in a bath house. This is possibly the most brutal and disturbing scene in the career of a filmmaker who has never shied away from showing it all. It is, in fact, possibly the most horrifically realistic fight scene ever committed to film—and this is part of what sets Cronenberg’s underworld tale apart from what we’re used to in cinema. Cronenberg never prettifies the mob, never glorifies it, never romanticizes it—something that cannot be said of modern mob movies from Coppola to Scorsese. It’s also what makes Eastern Promises such a compelling work—so dark, so disturbing, and yet ultimately incredibly human, which, in turn, is what makes the film disturbing in the first place. There’s scarcely a false note in Eastern Promises, from first to last. It’s simply magnificent. Rated R for strong brutal and bloody violence, some graphic sexuality, language and nudity.