Eastern Promises (2007)
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Sinéad Cusack, Donald Sumpter, Armin Mueller-Stahl
Directed by: David Cronenberg
Confession time. Prior to this, I had only seen one David Cronenberg movie in full, 2005’s A History of Violence (I’ve seen parts of his Crash and The Dead Zone as well). This makes me both A) a terrible film snob (which I already knew), and B) a terrible Canadian. Both of which makes me want to check out more movies by Cronenberg, perhaps the best director in my country’s history… but… do they have to be so weird?
Luckily, he seems to be exploring a different genre with his newest films than the body horror genre flicks like The Fly, Dead Ringers, and Naked Lunch from earlier in his career, making movies I’m interested in seeing for reasons other than patriotism. As with A History of Violence, Eastern Promises continues Cronenberg’s recent examination of violence and the loss of identity that comes with it. In Eastern Promises, Cronenberg presents a story about the Russian mafia in London, following Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen), a driver for the Russian mafia family headed by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), looking to move up in the family with his close connection to Semyon’s son Kirill (Vincent Cassel). Problems arise when he crosses paths with Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), a midwife at a North London hospital, who gets mixed up with the family when a young Russian girl dies on her table while giving birth.
I’ll tell you write now, I highly recommend this movie if for no other reason than the incomparable climax. It may very well be the most brutally graphic violence I’ve ever seen on screen, with Cronenberg accomplishing this without being gratuitous. Unbelievably intense, it really needs to be seen. I thought I’d already seen the most visceral fight scene possible earlier this year, then Cronenberg found a way to turn it up a notch by raising the level of brutality to an uncomfortable level, eliminating the comfortable distance movies usually give the audience in the typical fight scene. It is a truly phenomenal scene, leaving me both wide-eyed and cringing at the same time.
The rest of the movie is largely a success, but in less spectacular fashion. It is an assured piece of filmmaking with a slow burning mystery that eventually explodes in the climax. Prior to that, it moves a little slowly while Cronenberg patiently tells his story. It’s a movie deep in atmosphere, guided by subtle and assured performances by Mortensen and Mueller-Stahl (contrasted by a more lively performance by Cassel). The story itself is a little thin, with an ending that falls a little flat (especially after the phenomenal climax), but the method in which Cronenberg presents the story allows it to rise above its genre level trappings to become a compelling, expertly-made feature.