Russians, Knives, and Nudity: A Review of Eastern Promises

Eastern Promises Viggo Mortensen

In my scouting report for the weekend movie openings I carelessly left out Eastern Promises, the new film from David Cronenberg. That was kinda dumb because I have been looking forward to this movie for a few months and if I had remembered to include it, it would have rocketed to the top of my rundown. I’m glad it did come out here this Friday, because it gave me something worth seeing in an otherwise dismal line-up.

The plot begins with a brutal barber-shop slaying. It quickly follows up the blood with a different kind of death as a young girl dies during childbirth. Naomi Watts plays the midwife who takes an interest in the child and begins trying to make sense of the dead mother’s life by translating her diary. This diary brings her into contact with the Vore v Zakunia (or something similar) a Russian organized crime family in London.

Cronenberg once again casts Viggo Mortensen as his male lead as he did in the excellent and underrated A History of Violence from a couple years back. I wonder if Mortensen is becoming the Stewart to Cronenberg’s Hitchcock. Here, Aragorn plays Nikolai, a low level driver for the gang. He’s a man of few words and an icy exterior that never seems to crack even when he is calmly removing the fingertips from the victim of the barber shop hit. Nikolai has some ambition, and he is pursuing his own agenda as he deals with Semyon, the Russian equivalent of Don Corleone and Kirill, his Fredo-esque son. There are some betrayals and things move slowly toward their conclusion.

The movie takes its time, doling the parallel stories out in bits and pieces interspersed with narrated passages from the dead girl’s journal. Cronenberg’s pace is deliberate, but when he breaks with the sprawling character study for an action scene he does it in his singular style. His films are visceral in the most literal sense of the word. They depict the body in ways that range from subtly disturbing (like his closeups of the bloody and translucent newborn infant, dripping with amniotic fluid) to the outright sickening (as in the close-up throat slitting, which he shows us twice in this film). It is graphic, but the violence in his films is a whole other breed from the kind of “Hey look what I can get away with showing you!” gore found in the torture porn that Saw begat.

This violence is brutally realistic, both in its depiction and in the consequences. The purest example of this comes near the end of the film when Nikolai takes on two Chechen hitmen in a seedy steam room. They are large and have knives. He is unarmed. And naked. The fight scene is breathless in its intensity, and while I did have to turn my head a few times (I am a wuss when it comes to on-screen gore) I couldn’t stop paying attention. The battle is quick and shocking. The fighters become animals, slashing, clawing doing whatever ugly things they have to to stay alive. There isn’t anything cartoony or operatic about these fight scenes but it captivates you.

Some people might be turned off by the slow pace of the film’s story, wishing that the breathless rush of the fight scenes carried through to the rest of the film. But they work precisely because they are used sparingly and the punctuate the moody, character-driven nature of the rest of the plot. Cronenberg examines the themes of corruption and moral ambiguity and the result may not be as tight as his previous effort but it left me looking forward to his next.

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