Eastern Promises
By: Mr Intolerance on November 3, 2007  |  Comments ()  |  Bookmark and Share
Director: David Cronenberg
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Vincent Cassel, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl
Screenplay: Steven Knight
Country: UK, Canada, USA
Australian Release Date: 25th October 2007
Distributor: Roadshow Films
Running Time: 99 minutes
OFLC Rating: R18+ (High Level Violence)
Let's get the synopsis – well, outline, really – out of the way so we can discuss the ideas that Eastern Promises essays; no spoilers here! After a suitably bloody and brutal beginning, we're introduced to Anna (Watts, in yet again another practically catatonic walk-through role), a midwife of Russian/English descent in a London hospital. A young, heavily pregnant Russian girl, Tatiana, has been brought in, having hemorrhaged in a chemist's – the baby is saved, but the tragically too young mother cannot be helped. A diary written in Russian is the only form of identification found, and Anna tries to get her Russian uncle Stepan to translate, so that the relatives, if mentioned, can be contacted. After finding a business card for the Trans-Siberian restaurant in the diary, Anna decides to investigate (why do people never go to the police in these movies?), and gets sucked into the grimy world of Russian organised crime. Ordinary people are cast out of their depth in extraordinary situations, underworld vendettas are undertaken, and scores are settled in this, director David Cronenberg's latest brutal, confrontational, yet intelligent and thought-provoking opus.

It's kind of hard for me to be in the slightest bit objective about David Cronenberg's body of work. In my not so humble opinion, he's a truly stellar auteur; Cronenberg has never compromised his directorial integrity, or distilled his vision in any way – in a notoriously sleazy and money-grubbing dog-eat-dog industry such as film-making, that's pretty admirable, and my hat's definitely off to him. Plus, as I stated in a recent review on this website for The Brood, he's a director who makes films for an audience with a brain, and he's never talked down to that audience – story, character and ideas are the important aspects in his films, not flashy, gimmicky slayings as in the execrably poor August Underground films, or the retarded sadism of the Saw franchise – Cronenberg can get more of an emotional reaction with less blood and gore. And what I truly admire about Cronenberg's work is that more than 30 years after making his feature debut with Shivers, he is still making films that can visually shock, confront and provoke an audience to react without being gratuitous – the noises of revulsion and the flinching from fellow audience members at last night's screening during the savage life or death struggle towards the end of the film were proof positive of this confrontation – as much as he does through the ideas driving the films and the moral questioning these ideas provoke. This is one fella who has not taken his foot off the gas during the length and breadth of his career. I admire that.

Eastern Promises is not your average David Cronenberg film. Like, if you go into this film disregarding the recent, more realist trend in Cronenberg's film-making, as exemplified in Spider or A History of Violence, and are basing your reaction on the sci-fi horror uber-classics Scanners, Videodrome, The Brood and The Fly, for example – I think you'll be a tad disappointed. There is nary a breath of the other-worldly, and the techno-fear and body horror of those earlier films is almost (notice the qualifying term) totally absent. So don't go in thinking you're going to see exploding heads, biomechanical guns firing explosive cancer into their victims, homicidally psychotic rage babies, or human/insect hybrids – you're fooling yourself if you think that Cronenberg would ever stoop to repeating himself (okay, okay – Existenz did re-tread some ideas from Videodrome, but the message and the treatment set it apart from that earlier film). Sure, there are a couple of trademark "Cronenberg moments" in this film (the aforementioned and already notorious 'bath-house fight' being one of them), but I found the experience of watching Eastern Promises different to the average (if such a beast exists) David Cronenberg film.

Let me try to explain. We've moved beyond the topical, for the 70s and 80s, fear of technology, fear of epidemic, fear of medical science and its practitioners, fear and mistrust of authority abusing its power, fear of society's collapse – horribly enough we factor them in now as givens: after AIDS, 9/11, the resultant so-called War on Terror, and further given that we currently live in an age where you're carrying more sophisticated hardware in your pocket (I'm assuming you all have a mobile phone and/or an iPod of some form) than was on the rocket that carried Armstrong and his buddies to the moon, not to mention the fact that you can live your life without venturing out the door via your home computer – those kind of fears are now largely redundant – or at least factored in and lived with, however uneasily. Cronenberg has always shown us what we're contemporaneously scared of – and this time: it's us. Society and its values – what it really feels, not the bleating platitudes it spouts but does not enforce – seem to be the targets, with racism, breakdown in family relationships, homophobia and personal, up-front violence being particular whipping boys.

The racism of the Russian characters (and by extension, our society – the whole microcosm/macrocosm thing at work) is casual and ingrained – but to our increasingly suffocating PC wrapped in cotton-wool world, deeply confronting – it's almost like we all say, "racism is bad" – which obviously it is – and then promptly try to pretend it doesn't exist by not confronting the issue head on. Cronenberg is reminding us that it's still there, and as nasty, insulting and demeaning as ever. The reactions of Anna (Watts) and her mother to Uncle Stepan's off-handed dismissive denigration of black people mirror how appalled we the audience are, that someone could still harbor such offensive views in what we consider to be a progressive and enlightened age where race is not a divisive issue. Strip aside the veneer of civilisation and what is humanity? A collection of brute animals capable of true horrors, which brings us neatly to the violence.

The personal aspect of the violence is the key, to me, in what makes this film so damn nasty. You expect a gangster/crime film in this day and age to be full of hi-tech weapons and gadgets a la James Bond, right? Wrong. There are no guns in this film. According to an interview I read with Cronenberg, this was deliberate – and believe me, there's one fight with linoleum cutters that is excruciating to watch, and part of that is the particularly tactile, "hands on" approach the scene possesses. There is none of the distance that characterises a gun. Pulling a trigger doesn't commit one to the action of murder anywhere near as much as slitting a throat – really getting your hands dirty, and physically interacting with the victim.

While the violence in the film is graphic and very brutal, it never descends into the exploitative or the gratuitous. It works as a vicious counterpoint to the icy elegance of the camera-work. When the voice-over of Tatiana (and the gradual translation of her diary by Uncle Stepan) tells of the lies and inhuman treatment she receives at the hands of the initially avuncular, yet somehow still shifty Semyon (Mueller-Stahl) and the other members of the vory v zakone (apparently the translation is "thieves in law" – Russian organized crime, effectively), it's more than slightly sickening – and this is with no images to back up the words. Her account of her nightmarish existence as a 14 year old prostitute doped to the eye-balls with heroin to make her dependent on the drug, and thence not leave the brothel, not to mention the sexual and otherwise physical abuse that she suffers, is bleak, abject and wretched.  

The members of the families we see do simply not understand each other – either good or bad. Kirill's attempts at gaining his father's approval are inept, to say the least, and his lack of understanding and frustrations at Semyon's callous indifference at best to these attempts is truly pathetic. Similarly, Kirill's lack of respect for family tradition is another stumbling block in the relationship he craves with his father – his reaction to possibly being supplanted actually (briefly) gets the audience's sympathy. Anna's family are not much better – Stepan is a selfish insensitive drunk, with no regard for Anna's personal problems, the mother somewhat better, but cloying and over-protective. No-one really connects here – like in all the best works of existentialist writers like Camus in The Outsider or Sartre in Nausea, we simply can't know each other.

Another target of Cronenberg's social critique is homophobia. Sexuality is present in one form or another in all of Cronenberg's films to varying degrees of extent – whether Max and Nicki's sado-masochistic tryst in Videodrome, Lola's intense sexual jealousy in The Brood, the pure savage lust that powers the parasite-infected in Shivers, the enhanced sexual prowess Seth Brundle possesses in The Fly after his mutation – the list goes on. It's no different here, let me tell you. The members of the vory are a homophobic bunch, to put it mildly – again confronting that idea that we, as society, have got that problem beat. Cronenberg is telling us – hell, he's showing us – that we do not. Not discussing the problem does not eradicate it – homophobia to the point of violence still exists in the hearts and minds of people the world over. As a matter of fact, the only heterosexual sex act we actually see is one vory member having to prove that he's not gay to another, who probably is, albeit in denial, and it's a pretty inhuman coupling to say the least, performed with about all the passion and sensitivity you'd expend in cleaning the toilet – cold, functional and machine-like.     

So the horror (and remember: this is not a horror film) isn't in what acts upon us from the outside (parasites, science, medical science, family relationships and the media having all been past targets for Cronenberg's acerbic eye), it's in what we're capable of doing, sometimes without even thinking, caring or feeling – an early scene where Nikolai (Mortensen) has to render a corpse totally unrecognisable is savage and bleak – his indifference to his activity (he's quite calmly smoking a cigarette while he performs this grisly task) is chilling. The idea that it's all credible, realistic people performing deeds of an inhuman nature is not a new one for Cronenberg, but it's dealt with most effectively in this film. The moral questions this raises – especially in terms of where you place your sympathies, character-wise, are complex – just because Mortensen receives top billing as Nikolai does not make him Sir Galahad. The characters, as in all of Cronenberg's films, are more than one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs – even the vicious low-down rat-fink bastards like Kirill (Cassel) have a vaguely understandable motivation, and moments of audience sympathy.

Without spilling the beans too much, there are only a few moments where your willing suspension of disbelief slips, and they're few and far between – the use of black humour becomes a little too intrusive at times – I'm assuming it was to lighten the otherwise pitch black tone of the film, but came off as a little forced at times. Also, it did have me wondering exactly how long you have to recuperate in hospital after getting a really fierce beating… But then, this last point is a perennial problem in motion pictures, so maybe I shouldn't over analyse it too much.   

Oh, and if you don't know too much about Russian organized crime – it's explained for you during the film – and the exposition of such never gets dreary, because the subject matter is stripped back as well as being genuinely interesting. The whole idea about tracing the course of a person's life by their tattoos was quite fascinating, for one. 

The performances, for the better part, drive this film. I was never too impressed by Viggo Mortensen's turn as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings – here, however, he delivers top-shelf acting as Nikolai, the enigmatic and subtly menacing driver of Semyon. Similarly, Vincent Cassel's bumbling, pathetic bully Kirill shows an actor at the top of his game. If there's a better performer currently working – I'd like to know who they are. Armin Mueller-Stahl as the mob boss Semyon also delivers the goods – for me the only let down was Naomi Watts as Anna – a wooden and quite lifeless performance. Oh well, can't win 'em all. And the direction? If I need to say more about this, you obviously didn't read any of the above.

There is one thing that annoys me in relation to how Eastern Promises is being received in the popular press. I'm currently getting a very bad case of the shits with mainstream critics who are gushing over this film, referring to both it and the immediately preceding A History of Violence, as being Cronenberg's "serious" films. So apparently Videodrome, as a random example, isn't serious. Yeah, right. Does casting a film in the horror genre somehow render it lightweight? Have these morons never sat through any of his other, earlier flicks? I'm thinking not. Well, either that, or they're just terminal fuckwits who wouldn't recognise a quality film if it jumped up and bit them on the balls.

My advice on Eastern Promises? Go and see it now. It's a quality film by a quality director featuring quality performances. It's also the perfect antidote to anything that's recently come out of Hollywood…  It's a movie to make you think, as well as one that entertains like a son of a bitch. Quite simply: I can't wait for Cronenberg's next film.
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