I’ve gotten so used to watching great mob movies depicting ruthless Italians (Goodfellas and The Godfather), that I’ve forgotten other cultures have their own organized crime syndicates too. The Chinese and Japanese have some mean people doing some very bad things. So do the Columbians. But the cake has to go to the Russians. These guys are the epitome of badass.
Eastern Promises is a congealed story involving a Russian crime family that have taken their base of operations to London, under the guise of an classy restaurant, Trans-Siberian. The head of the family is Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a man with a cute, peaceful exterior and a sinister heart. He’ll stop at nothing to protect his family, turf and way of life. His latest problem involves a diary, in which his rogue son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) has been named in as a rapist, kidnapper, pimp, drug smuggler and murderer. This personal journal has found its way into the hands of a midwife named Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), when she finds it in the belongings of a 14-year old prostitute who has died while giving birth. To restore order, Semyon sends Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) to retrieve the book and to tie up any loose ends that may yet still exist.
And just like in A History of Violence, director David Cronenberg starts the ball rolling quickly with a few eye opening, unexpected scenes. The first shows the brazen, yet nonchalant, attitude these individuals have towards murder – even if it’s one of their own. The second bloody moment shows the desperation to and the futility of escape from these murderous people. Both play integral parts in the movie, in fundamentally different ways.
The first thing to note is Cronenberg has obviously found his film making niche. He intertwines the duality of good versus bad, dark versus light within his characters like few other directors. This is showcased perfectly by the central character of Nikolai. While he outwardly exhibits behavior showcasing his loyalty to the family as needed, he secretly tries to shy away from confrontation and from partaking in any questionable activities. Likewise, the character Anna Khitrova, is equally complex. She acts naïve and doe-eyed when interacting with these evil doers while at the same time she is rock solid in her stance get what she wants. Both of these characters walk a very fine line while looking for weaknesses to exploit for power (Nikolai) and decency (Anna).
And while most of the congratulations fall squarely on the shoulders of the actors and director, Eastern Promises really shines thanks to a well written screenplay by Steven Knight. The characters are fully developed and the plot is compelling and complex. I was completely immersed in the story within the first five minutes of screen time and never once lost interest. And while I’m not about to give anything away, the plot twists and turns are very smart and caught me completely unawares.
My only point of contention lays in the way the films ends. The plot twists have unfolded and the characters have all seemingly gotten what they rightly deserved — but according to the setup, should they have? I wanted to see a different ending come out of it all, not one that seemed so cut and dry.
Other than that minor detail, there isn’t a way for me to not recommend Eastern Promises. David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen have stepped up their games with this movie. They have firmly established themselves as some of the best Hollywood has to offer. Even though this won’t make much of a ripple in the theaters, it will get it’s just rewards come time for the Academy Awards — I see several nominations in its future.