Eastern Promises

poster-easternpromises.jpgA dark, blatant, and in-depth look into the underworld of the Russian Mafia, David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises is vastly superior to his previous feature, A History of Violence, in almost every aspect of filmmaking. The first scene is a bloody one that sets the tone for the rest of the picture. It gives the viewer a strikingly similar feeling to that fiber wire bar scene in the beginning of The Godfather. This film doesn’t impress with guns. In fact, there are none to be found throughout the entire thing. Eastern Promises impresses with a tight script, well-written dialogue, brilliant performances across the board, and, unlike A History of Violence, it has a feeling of authenticity one would find in The Godfather or Goodfellas.

Anna, played by Naomi Watts (The Painted Veil) is a nurse in a London Hospital. Late one night while on duty she gets a pregnant teenage girl, whose water has just broken, sent to her ward. Unfortunately, the girl dies but her baby daughter is saved. The girl, Tatiana, appears to be a teenage prostitute whose arm is riddled with heroine injections. She is originally listed as an unidentified girl until Anna finds her diary in her belongings. Anna keeps the diary to try to find out who she was but what she, her mother, and uncle discover are some dark secrets of esteemed members of the Russia mafia.

Not knowing or seeing the whole picture at first, the diary leads her to a restaurant owned by a Russian mafia head named Seymon (Armin Mueller-Stahl, The Peacemaker). Through him she meets his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel, Ocean’s Thirteen) and his new bodyguard/chauffeur Nikolai (Viggo Mortenson, who starred in A History of Violence). Soon everyone knows the situation. The diary implicates Seymon and Kirill in raping Tatiana and holding her as a sex slave and it is possible that Seymon is the father of the baby. Anna keeps running into Nikolai, whose allegiance isn’t quite clear. Tension is created as threats are made to her, her family, and the newly born child. This is what most have seen in the film’s trailer and I assure you the plot becomes even more intriguing and absorbing as it develops.

In a movie filled with great performances, it is Viggo Mortenson who creates a truly memorable character, and with what Cronenberg puts him through in Eastern Promises, he deserves an Oscar Nomination. This is Mortenson’s first great and most complex performance since 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Excluding the fact that Nikolai goes through absolute hell throughout the film, Mortenson’s forged accent and the personality he creates with this intimidating figure is enough to deserve high recognition.

post-promises2.jpgThe supporting performances, while not quite as stellar as Mortenson’s, are still far above average. Naomi Watts once again shows that she is the next Nicole Kidman (who she is said to be best friends with) and judging by the way she is able to pick great film projects, she is rapidly becoming one of the best actresses working today. Armin Mueller-Stahl plays the Don Corleone role as the head honcho mobster Seymon. Like his character, Stahl demands respect. Although he never shows it, underneath his face is pure evil. Probably the most complex role next to Mortenson’s belongs to Vincent Cassel as Kirill. Kirill’s character is at times sadistic but there are touches of humanity in him and because of Cassel’s acting, he keeps a good standing with the audience. Despite some heinous crimes he’s committed, there are more evil forces at work. One strange character worth mentioning is Ekrem, a young prot©g©e of one of Seymon’s right-hand men who is involved in the opening scene, forced to slit a man’s throat. Played by an actor named Josef Altin, Ekrem almost seems to be mentally challenged.

Cronenberg’s direction and touch are much improved since A History of Violence. That film was over-the-top and although it wasn’t necessarily “Bad Boys,” what shootout scenes there were were exceedingly loud and bloody to a videogamish level. Here there are no guns, and he is more focused on his characters and script, and luring us into his world. Within Seymon’s restaurant, Cronenberg and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky gorgeously depict the personal and business lives of these mobsters. Cronenberg also helms perhaps the most brutal and unforgettable scene of the year: the soon to be infamous shower fight scene you’ve probably heard so much about. Yes, it is graphic and yes, it will stick with you after you’ve left the theater.

The editing by Ronald Sanders is nearly seamless and with Suschitzky’s cinematography, the movie looks fantastic. Not only does Suschitzky excel with some powerful ‘trailer’ shots of Mortenson and Mueller-Stahl, but there are also some great shots of the streets of London. Howard Shore accompanies these attributes with a fitting and chilling musical score.

The script by writer Steven Knight is an extremely well-thought out blueprint for what becomes a gripping thriller. In no way predictable, the film is filled with several twist and double-crosses and yet never gets too convoluted. The character development is not neglected and it’s the dialogue rather than the action that seems to move the story along. I must wonder though about how Tatiana, a miserably poor sex slave, was able to keep a diary without Kirill or Seymon knowing.

The biggest flaw to Eastern Promises is the ending. The movie is like a delicious meal at a fancy restaurant that’s too small in proportion. There’s a saying “always leave them wanting more” but it should never be applied to filmmaking. The ending feels rushed and the movie overall is surprisingly short, just over 90 minutes not including credits. Although just about everything up to this point has been rock solid, the weak ending makes some of the greatness of the film inconsequential. Another good 10 to 15 minutes to tie everything up would have left me fully satiated. If there’s one thing A History of Violence did right, at least from what I remember, it was tying everything up in the conclusion.

That doesn’t take a whole lot away from Eastern Promises, it just erases the label of ‘great film’ and replaces it with a slightly less quality label: ‘excellent.’ Great mob movies are few and far between. The last great one was Scorcese’s near masterpiece The Departed. Like that film, Eastern Promises has arguably the best ensemble cast of the year. While not as humorous as The Departed, Eastern Promises gives viewers not only a look at a foreign organized crime power but also a dark and flagitious perspective as well. Although it’s not quite a truly great mob movie, it’s enough to hold you over until the next one.

The Upside: Stellar performances by the cast.

The Downside: Weak and Rushed conclusion

On the Side: Just to give you a heads up, Viggo Mortenson does appear naked in the movie.

Grade: A-