by Brett Parker
Eastern Promises is a gangster picture that features throat slashings, blood splattering, raw sex, and vicious stabbings. Yet the most surprising thing about the film is how subtle it all is. Most crime pictures are made up of grand atmospheres that shove their intensity and violence right in your face. Here’s one that simply invites us into the characters lives and we find that what is brewing in their minds and souls is more gripping and exciting than any act of violence. Instead of being at the mercy of plot mechanics, the characters let their own motivations and ideals dictate the events of the story. The end result is a fascinating lived-in reality that doesn’t have to be showy to attract a film audience. This world will shake you all the same.
As the film opens, we see a midwife named Anna (Naomi Watts) deliver the baby of a young woman who doesn’t survive the birth. The baby is born alive and healthy, but the mystery of who the mother was hangs over Anna’s thoughts. Looking over her personal belongings, Anna discovers a diary written entirely in Russian. The diary carries the calling card of a nearby
What is first and foremost impressive about Eastern Promises is how perfectly this unlikely material fits in with director David Cronenberg’s auteur themes. His love of the flesh is strongly felt in the film’s use of tattoos. It is said that the tattoos of Russian gangsters are used to tell their personal histories and serves as a kind of criminal résumé. Cronenberg makes good use of the character’s tattooed flesh to give a feel of their experiences and myths. Of course the strongest example of the flesh is found in the film’s much talked about bath house sequence, in which a naked Nikolai fights off two fully-clothed and fully-armed assassins. Cronenberg displays the characters nakedness to convey both the vulnerability and stripped-down skill within Nikolai at that moment. The scene deserves its accolades, it is a great showcase of a great director’s skill.
Another theme of Cronenberg’s is the inner-workings of monstrous characters. Here, Cronenberg uses villainous Russian gangsters as a springboard to show how criminality can deeply affect a person’s mentality. At first, Kirill appears to be a typical spoiled gangster, with the usual need for violence and excess. Yet Cronenberg digs deep into the character to show the vulnerable child hidden within, who might even have some homoerotic tendencies about him. The most fascinating character is found in Nikolai, who at first appears to be the most sinister and hardened of these criminals. Pretty soon, his character is unraveled towards a surprise revelation that hits you like a ton of bricks. I will not reveal the intimate details of the surprise, but only to say that it brings an unexpected depth to the already strongly rooted idea of how criminality can corrupt the soul. In a time when twist endings have grown seemingly cheap and unremarkable, Cronenberg’s twist brings about a brilliant depth to an already efficient film.
Aside from Cronenberg’s directing, the film’s performances are just as focused and brilliant. Mueller-Stahl and