Thursday, June 9, 2011


David Cronenberg, 2007
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Jerzy Skolimowski

A British midwife, Anna (Naomi Watts), discovers a diary on the body of a young girl who died in labor at her hospital. She takes the diary, which is written in Russian, home and has her Russian uncle begin to translate it. She also finds a business card for a local Russian restaurant and pays them a visit, hoping to track down the dead girl's family for the now orphaned infant. Unfortunately, Anna has stumbled into the world of the
vory v zakone, the Russian mafia. Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) owns the restaurant and is the local boss. He claims he will help Anna find the young girl's family, but has more sinister motives. Anna also encounters Semyon's out of control son (the awesome Vincent Cassel) and his protector, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen, so in character he is basically unrecognizable), who also doubles as the family's driver and body dumper.

As Anna and Nikolai's worlds converge, Anna becomes with obsessed with getting justice for the dead girl and punishing those responsible. It turns out that Semyon "imported" her from the Ukraine for the family brothel, got her addicted to drugs and then raped and impregnated her. Nikolai bizarrely protects Anna, increasingly showing his true moral nature throughout the film. He is also allowed to move up in the vor ranks when he is shown to be loyal to Kirill, often correcting the younger man's mistakes and showing him how to survive in the underworld. Semyon, slippery and manipulative as ever, uses this relationship to his advantage when Kirill makes a potentially fatal mistake. He tricks Nikolai into posing as his son, hoping he will take the fall. Things don't really turn out as he planned.

Eastern Promises was highly acclaimed upon its release. It appeared on a number of top ten lists for 2007, won and was nominated for a number of awards, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for Viggo Mortensen. The film was inspired by a 2000 documentary, The Mark of Cain, which explored for the first time the very secret world of Russian convict and career criminal culture, focusing on their elaborate system of tattooing. The film was obviously meticulously researched and provides a very competent representation of Russian organized crime. Viggo Mortensen himself did extensive preparation, supposedly wearing his very accurate tattoos off set, alarming local Russians. His portrayal of Nikolai is flawless and probably represents the best work of his career. I think he deserved to win that Academy Best Actor award, which went to There Will Be Blood. A naked knife fight in a Russian bath beats out "I drink your milkshake" any day of the week.

The scene ties in nicely with Cronenberg's theme of body horror or extreme bodily violence, which has gotten increasingly subtle with each new film. Eastern Promises is a graphically violent film, as well as providing explicit portrayals of sex and drug use. This horrifying look at a very real underworld counter culture should shock regular movie-goers with it's brutal honesty. And again, Viggo Mortensen with the graphic and extremely uncomfortable sex scenes...

On a final note, I was fascinated by Cronenberg's many layered portrayal of the family unit. Aside from Semyon's family, which is very close, but in reality is a mafia family, there are two other important elements. First, there is the vory v zakone as a family with Semyon as its head, which ultimately fails. His patriarchy breaks down not only in the example of his son's failures, but also in the fact that Tatiana, the dead young girl, has escaped and bore his child outside of his protection. The second family unit centers around Anna. She is a mid-wife who cannot carry her own children, a fact her traditional Russian uncle constantly mocks and calls attention to. She takes over a motherly role when she decides to protect the orphaned baby, completing this fractured family unit in a bizarre romantic scene. At the end of the film, while she is cradling the baby, she and Nikolai share a chaste kiss. It's kind of creepy.

I don't have many complaints about Eastern Promises. The plot is a little clumsy, but the film really rests on the power of the characters and the realistic portrayal of their world. The ending is a little mechanical, but most writers have a hard time with plot twists. It's also weirdly sappy, which is brief enough that I can get over it.

The acting is amazing. I've already praised Viggo Mortensen up and down the block, but all the actors give fine performances. Some of them, like Armin Mueller-Stahl and Jerzy Skolimowski simply don't get enough screen time. Vincent Cassel is fantastic as the troubled son, but I like him in everything, even the terrible Ocean's 12. I have a soft spot for Naomi Watts, but I'm not really sure how she fits into this film. Her performance is a little flat and uncertain, but I can't think of anyone I would rather see as Anna, a restrained and emotionally stunted character.

I'm reviewing the single disc from Universal Studios, but with the film's rich colors and lovely sets, I would say to get it on Blu-ray if you can. It's a pretty bare bones disc as far as extras go unfortunately, but just about every other Cronenberg release makes up for that.


  1. I am starting to think we need to be best friends- every review is spot on and your appreciation for the fine things- Viggo, Fassbender, Aiden Turner- and that's the three I've read in last half hour. Also, your tribute to 'Withnail and I' was fantastic. I need your opinions on a few other men and films before I officially decide you're my unknown Internet doppelgänger.

  2. Sorry it took me so long to reply! Glad you agree and glad you love WITHNAIL AND I. Do you have a blog or a twitter or anything I could follow in return?