Review by John
Eastern Promises is a 2007 crime drama film directed by David Cronenberg starring Viggo Mortensen as Nikolai Luzhin, Naomi Watts as Anna Khitrova, and Vincent Cassel as Kirill. The film concerns the quite heavy subject matter of sex trafficking in the Russian mafia. A baby is born to a young girl who dies in childbirth, and her nurse, Anna (Naomi Watts), decides to follow some leads in order to find the baby a suitable home. She discovers just how the young girl became pregnant (at the hands of a Russian mobster and his son, the latter played by Vincent Cassel) and despite warning from her uncle and the verbal strong-arming of the Russian mafia members she meets, she is hellbent on doing the right thing for the newborn. Mortensen’s Nikolai Luhzin is the driver for Kirill, and is a very shadowy and strangely suave member of the mob. He finds himself caught in the middle of Anna’s righteous quest and the wishes of his employers and affiliates. I don’t want to get too far into the plot of the movie, and to avoid spoilers, I will just note that the story has it’s share of twists and turns. And yes, this is a rather bleak film.
The Acting: Across the board, I find the acting in this movie to be great, especially the top-billed players. Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal of Luzhin is phenomenal, his dedication the the role really shines through, and is up there with dedicated performances by the likes of noted actors Christian Bale (see The Machinist) or Daniel Day Lewis (see just about anything the man is in). Naomi Watts does a wonderful job as well, as does Cassel as the somewhat dim and rather crude Kirill. These great efforts trickle down to other cast members as well; Armin Mueller-Stahl as Kirill’s mob boss father Semyon is definitely notable. To my eye, there really aren’t any weak or unbelievable performances in this movie.
The Atmosphere: Eastern Promises is uncompromising. It is emotionally taxing, and it pulls no punches. This film does a great job of juggling it’s various elements to suck you in, grab you by the throat, and throttle you. Eastern Promises, while not remotely an action movie, resembles one in this regard. While the mid-late 2000s had a plethora of “grimdark” films, I feel like this one’s thematic elements and largely deplorable cast of characters (save Anna and Nikolai) necessitate this atmosphere. Also of note is how Cronenberg and crew achieved this gloomy and depressing mood without the use of a completely muddy or muted color palette. Impressive.
The Score: Longtime Cronenberg collaborator Howard Shore provides the music for this film. While there is nothing in this movie that you would want to listen to on the ride to work, the music is understated and without frills, and it suits the film perfectly and highlights key scenes and moments as you would expect. A solid addition to an already solid foundation.
The Action: As already stated, Eastern Promises is *not* an action movie. But what action there is in this film, it is grisly, realistic, and an absolute blast to watch. There is a key scene in this film that, to me, rivals the legendary They Live fight scene. It’s that good. Like the rest of the movie; the action is raw, it’s ugly, and it’s uncompromising in it’s realistic brutality.
The End: Without spoiling the film, I am simply going to say that I don’t really buy the change that one character goes through during one of the film’s climactic moments. This is hard to say without giving away the plot completely, so just watch the movie and hopefully you will see where I’m coming from. I will say that this doesn’t involve Mortensen’s character as anything concerning him is explained in the film quite well. Also concerning the events of the ending, I sort of wish the writer would have ended the film differently. It’s a stretch referring to this as a bad quality, moreso it is simply this reviewer’s personal preference. At the risk of having a spoiler in this review, I will simply say that I don’t feel every movie needs a happy resolution.
Overall, Eastern Promises is a very strong film. In my opinion, this is a top 3 David Cronenberg movie. I believe it is a stronger film than the previous Cronenberg-Mortensen piece A History of Violence (2005). Coming in the second half of Cronenberg’s storied directing career, it does away with the body horror and gore and substitutes the much more real horror of human depravity. A tense and unnerving atmospheric crime drama, Eastern Promises is a film that should be watched. I would venture to say that for me, this is one of the finest films of the 2000s. While a critical success, I feel like this movie is somewhat slept on by many. I wish it wasn’t.