Just when you think a film genre has been played out something comes along that reinvents it. This may be the case here with David Cronenberg’s latest opus, ‘Eastern Promises’. It looked like every possible variation of the crime thriller has been done. We have seen it from the viewpoint of the criminals, the authorities and the victims. There have been films that concentrated on the science of a criminal investigation and the gut feelings that humans are prone to have. What Cronenberg has done here is present a gripping film that is not so much about the plot as the criminal world behind the scenes. He is less concerned with the story; his concentration is on the human beings behind the events. Instead of a personalized viewpoint this movie is from the vantage point of the culture. You may initially think that this has been done before. We have a look at a criminal world in the ‘Godfather’ but that was mostly filtered through the eyes of Michael Corleone and other members of his family. In ‘Eastern Promises’ the culture is what is important, any people could fill the roles defined by the society. The people change in a culture like this but the culture remains.
All films are defined by the talent and interest of the director and this one is no different. David Cronenberg is one of the most talented directors of our time. He is always innovative and often controversial. Most of the controversy surrounding his films is the fact that Cronenberg is obsessed with flesh. In more than one film a character will state, on behalf of the director, ‘it is all about the flesh’. He often looks at how technology has affected our humanity. Just look at ‘Videodrome’, ‘eXistenZ, or his remake of ‘The Fly’ and you will see for yourself. In this film the crime organization is the entity under consideration. It is the organism that is made manifest through the flesh that serves it. In some ways this film is a thematic continuation of a previous Cronenberg movie, ‘A History of Violence’. It even contains some of the same cast; why change actors when you have the prefect set. In ‘History’ the main character was trying to get away from the crime organization. This film set the stage for a thriller where the organization and culture is the overwhelming force, not the people. I have spoken at length to friends and fellow film buffs about this movie. Those that disliked it expected the normal use of a plot; something laid out for them. The ones that loved it understood the talented yet twisted mind behind the director. They knew that in a Cronenberg flick normal reason goes out the window. There really wasn’t a middle ground here. This film will polarize the audience and that is one of its greatest strengths.
The film begins in a multi-ethnic neighborhood in London. A man walks into a barber shop as a customer is getting ready to be shaved. The barber hands the straight razor to the man and tells him to finish him. The man takes the razor and cuts the customer’s throat. This is not the smooth slice across the throat that movie audiences are used to. In true Cronenberg style the murder is brutal, the razor sawed back and forth as blood gushes out. Outside a pregnant girl in a coat and nightgown walks into a local drug store; she is bleeding badly and the pharmacist calls for an ambulance. She is taken to the hospital where she gives birth and dies. One the staff working on her is Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), a midwife. The now dead mother has no identification on her. The only belongings she had was a business card for a Russian restaurant and a diary in Russian. Anna wants to find someone for the sake of the baby and begins by going to the restaurant. The owner is Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who happens to be a highly placed member of the Russian crime organization. His title, feared by all, is Thief-in-Law, the boss. He offers to help translate the diary for Anna. Back at home Anna and her mother Helen (Sinéad Cusack) are visited by her uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski). He was born in the old country and warns Anna about the men she met, urging her to destroy the diary. One of the many people in the employ of Semyon is Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen). Ostensibly he works as a chauffeur but is really a solider and enforcer in the organization. One of his main responsibilities is to keep the wild son of the boss, Kirill (Vincent Cassel), out of as much trouble as possible. There is also trouble brewing for the crime family from a rival organization lead by the Chechen mob. Anna tried to do something decent for an orphaned baby girl and winds up in the midst of the brutal culture of the Russian crime families.
While the performances here are stellar what truly holds your interest is the intimate portal the film provides into the workings of the Russian crime family. A person who has survived to become a ‘Thief-in-Law’ has risen through the ranks through unbelievable mayhem. He is not the free-wheeling crime lord that most films portray. He has to live, and if need be, die by a strongly enforced code. This code obliges him to help other thieves, participate in formal inquiries of breaches of conduct and train younger thieves. It is this code of thieves’ honor that binds and defines the families. They may be ruthless men willing to kill but this code is more their culture than the one they get from their homeland. The character played by Viggo Mortensen is a true member of the family. His resume is carried with him at all times. Every aspect of his criminal life is tattooed on his body. Each graphic has a specific message, meaning and implication. The space over his heart is reserved for a tattoo of honor and service. Anna’s family is rightfully afraid of these people. Her uncle knew first hand what they were capable of doing. If you cross them in any way no one you know is safe.
Cronenberg knows his stuff. He weaves a film here that can stand apart from the story line. The way he goes into this culture is much like the famous Russian dolls. You open one and instead of finding an answer there is another doll instead that need to be opened. He goes into the Russian crime family layer by layer bit the audience is left with the feeling that there are more depths to be explored. Cronenberg has never been the type to shy away from blood, gore and violence. This is perfect for the depiction of such a brutal and unforgiving culture as the one examined here. Some have derided Cronenberg for changing his style since he entered the world of mainstream cinema. They talk on about how he was better when he made cult films early in his career. He did not sell out, he grew. It is unrealistic to expect any one working in a field for decades to remain the same. These same people would be the first to comment that he turns out the same thing over and over. Over the years Cronenberg has mature as an artist. Films of pure visceral shock have given way to more thought provoking thrillers than before. This is a man who is driven by images. His works are visually stylistic and that has never changed. This is the kind of film that doesn’t really hit the audience until after the closing credits have rolled. It seeps into your consciousness and slaps into place later. This is a film that will alter the way you think about crime thrillers.
Many actors would become type cast after being in such a big hit as the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy. This is not the case for Viggo Mortensen. He is the consummate professional actor. He can take on a quite character like in the Rings or a cold blooded killer as he does here. He is a coiled snake waiting to strike. Sure he looks like a nice guy but if ordered by his boss he will kill brutally without a shred of remorse. It also has to take a lot of dedication to his craft to sit for the application of the intricate tattoos. That had to take many hours but Mortensen pulls of the role perfectly. Naomi Watts is another of those actresses that can inhabit any role like putting on a pair of well worn jeans. She may not be your first choice for a young woman of Russian decent but that is why we are not successful casting directors. She owns this role even though it is far removed from any other she has ever done.
Of course the technical specifications of this DVD release are perfect. It comes from the Universal home entertainment division. When you bring a film from such a visually dependent director like Cronenberg you have to make sure the color palette is perfect. It is, the colors are muted almost as if they are hiding something. The Dolby 5.1 audio is fantastic. It brings you right into the action. There are only two extras provided by they are far better than any you have ever seen. The first is ‘Secrets and Stories’. This featurette focuses on Cronoberg’s work on bringing the script to life on location in London. The second is ‘Marked for Life’ where Cronenberg considers the meaning of the elaborate tattoos prevalent in the Russian crime families. This is a gem of a film. It is not for those who are adverse to blood and violence but then you most likely have never seen a Cronenberg flick. For the rest of you this is a must have for your collection.