When it comes to David Cronenberg, I’m pretty hesitant. Scanners and A History of Violence were very disappointing movies for me, and The Brood was only acceptable. Eastern Promises is the fourth movie I’ve seen by this film maker, and it surprised me completely. I was concerned going into it knowing it was Cronenberg. He is a great film maker but just doesn’t catch my fancy too well, but this entry in his filmography is a deeply moving and cringe inducing crime thriller.
After a 14 year old prostitute dies during child birth, hospital midwife Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) is determined to find the proper home for the new baby. She asks Russian restaurant owner, and dangerous crime boss, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), to help translate a diary she found on the dead prostitute. Unbeknownst to Anna, this diary holds incriminating evidence against Semyon and his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel). The only help Anna seems to have comes in the form of the crime family’s driver and “cleaner”, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) who seems to have a tight grasp on what is actually going on within the family and on the crime riddled streets of London.
This is storytelling at its tightest and its finest. Saying that this movie is about protecting a baby and solving a potential murder mystery wouldn’t be doing the plot any justice. This movie is about the people and how the lives of crime and innocence can blend together. Its a story about strains on families and how violence can take life or save life. Cronenberg doesn’t condemn anyway of life in Eastern Promises by expertly showing the good sides and the bad sides of every character presented in the movie. They’re deep, complex characters who are the real driving forces behind the movie.
While the violence in this movie is brutal thanks to Cronenberg’s unforgiving film making, it isn’t what the movie is all about. A lot of the violence is actually described in a voice over and not directly shown. While I don’t necessarily agree with the use of a voice over, I will say that the scenes that they describe are brutal and definitely help with the full impact of the story. The violence that is shown onscreen is just as intense as the violence that is described, but never do you think that something like what you are seeing could never happen. It is realistic and an impressive display of brutality.
Viggo Mortensen is out of this world awesome in this movie. In order to prepare for his role, he traveled to Siberia and the area around it without a translator in order to learn how to talk and behave by the people who live there, even if they weren’t the most savory people in the world. Naomi Watts also shows good chops as the sort of eyes and ears into the Russian criminal underworld that plagues the streets of London. Mueller-Stahl is appropriately intimidating, but Vincent Cassel playing his son is more enjoyable. He is borderline psychotic and excruciatingly uncomfortable with himself, which proves to be a dangerous combination.
Eastern Promises is the first movie I’ve seen by David Cronenberg that I really enjoyed. I recognize that he is a very talented film maker, but I just can’t seem to get into his movies. Luckily, this one brought me hope for my future Cronenberg viewings. It’s a brutal story of violence, but also a tragic story of family. This is an incredible movie that can be ranked with the best gangster movies, and should be seen by anyone who is a fan of the genre or just enjoy excellent movie experiences.