Eastern Promises Impresses

Featuring several prolonged knife murders, the constant threat of infanticide and an inside look at the Russian mafia’s sex trade, Eastern Promises is one of the best thrillers I have ever seen. From its bloody opening sequence, in which a man is viciously hacked in the throat with a barber’s razor, to its complex and thought-provoking conclusion, the film refused to allow me a single moment of comfort or security. Filmmaker David Cronenberg (A History of Violence, Spider) deftly uses this constant tension to explore the fragility of modern society and the potential of human nature – both for destruction and heroism. He sets so-called “normal people” against and amidst the killers of the Russian mafia, and the result is as interesting as it is terrifying.

Set in dark and damp modern London, Eastern Promises builds its storyline with a series of compelling introductions. After the barber-shop slicing, a pregnant woman walks into a convenience store and collapses in a bloody heap. She is transferred to a hospital, where she dies after her baby is delivered. Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), the mid-wife who delivers the child, quickly falls for the adorable orphaned baby and seeks to find its relatives, using a diary (written in Russian) found in her mother’s pocket. A restaurant card in the diary leads her to Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), an aging Russian restaurant owner who, unbeknownst to Anna, is also the king of the Russian mob in London.

Almost immediately, it becomes clear that Semyon wants the diary’s contents (and perhaps the baby) destroyed, and though he appears grandfatherly when he speaks to Anna, but there is something dangerous and powerful about him. With a gravelly Russian accent, he quietly but forcefully controls everyone around him, including his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and his enigmatic driver Nikolai (played coolly and spectacularly by Viggo Mortenson).

Nikolai is the film’s central character, but also its biggest mystery. The first time he appears onscreen, he callously removes the teeth and chops the fingers off of a corpse before depositing it in a river. While he claims to Anna that he is “only a driver”, he clearly aspires to move up in the Russian mob, and his icy demeanor seems to suggest a capability for brutality. And yet, he shows fleeting signs of a benevolent agenda – he is kind to a prostitute he has just been forced to have sex with, and his eyes offer a hint of softness as Anna challenges him about Semyon’s motives. Fans of Lord of the Rings (and, let’s be honest, aren’t we all?) will hardly recognize Mortenson behind his tattoos, slicked-back hair and believable Russian accent – this acting performance may be worthy of Oscar recognition.

The film weaves back and forth from inside the Russian mob to inside Anna’s home, where she lives with her British mother and Russian uncle. Scenes shot of the Russian mob world have dark lighting and the repeated sound of vodka being poured, while Anna’s home is sunlit and domestic. The looming threat that the Russian mobsters will infiltrate and destroy these “normal” people, as Anna’s mother calls herself, is the film’s greatest dramatic technique.

Naomi Watts has toned down the overt defenselessness she displayed in King Kong in favor of a subtler brand of vulnerability mixed with an unmistakable maternal determination to save the baby. She and Mortenson have a strange kind of attraction to each other, adding a rich dimension to the film’s storyline. Anna is a nonviolent civilian, who is potentially capable of courage when it comes to this baby, while Nikolai is a cold-blooded gangster potentially capable of compassion.

The movie has just the right amount of intense violence – any more would be gratuitous, but the threat of all hell breaking loose is always there. Mortenson stars in what is destined to be a classic fight scene: as he sits naked in a sauna, two mobsters enter with curved blades and attempt to butcher him. Of course, he somehow wrenches their blades away and stabs them over and over again, but not before suffering some deep wounds himself.

Eastern Promises is fairly straightforward in its plot, but Cronenberg takes his time in telling the story, milking each precious moment of violence, tension, and humanity. He offers a portrait of human nature that is mostly dark and disturbing.

However, through the complexity of Nikolai and the surprising strength of Anna, he also suggests redemption is not out of reach. Cronenberg seems to suggest that like Nikolai and Anna, we, the audience, must engage in and acknowledge the brutality of mankind before we are capable of defeating it. Eastern Promises will be playing at Images through Oct. 24.