It’s snowy and christmasy outside, so i’m reviewing a film that isn’t really snowy or christmasy feeling. If you can make sense of that please say so in the comments as i’m trying to do the same.
I suppose this is the place to put the fact that if i had to pick between the two “weird Davids” i would take David Cronenberg over David Lynch quite easily. Even his more bizarre stuff like Naked Lunch or Videodrome is more watchable than Lynch’s outings, and when it comes to his more typical narratives like The Fly or Eastern Promises the towel might as well be thrown in as i find them far more engaging than Blue Velvet or Wild at Heart.
It also helps that Cronenberg is Canadian as well…
When a young woman dies in child birth leaving no name or answers, its up to midwife Anna Khitrova to find answers for the baby’s sake. However sometimes answers lead to places where you might not necessarily want to go… du du DUUUUUUU!!!!!
Cronenberg has always been fascinated with the human body. His notoriety has been built around films that make our skin crawl by showing it twisted and changed in various unpleasant ways. However here in Eastern Promises he has turned his attention to what the body can show and hide. Our bodies come with us through time, and can tell the stories of our lives. Viggo Mortensen’s russian mobster Nikolai is the chief example of this show and tell theme, as his various tattoos can be read like a book.
Conversely the body can hide the intentions of the person within it. As Armin Mueller-Stahl’s outwardly kindly and grandfatherly demeanor and looks hides a vicious soul. Food, is also used as a theme of temptation and decadence and many scenes within the film show a heavy contrast between the food good/normal people eat versus the food that the mobsters do.
While i will say that Viggo plays his Nikolai with just a tad bit too much contemplated posturing and gangster cool, he by no means gives a bad performance. Nor do any of the other cast members, which is honestly a pretty regular thing to happen in Cronenberg’s films.
Lastly, i’m sure that considering the film’s portrayal of violence it may be slightly strange to give it praise for being particularly brutal it simply can’t be helped. The nude fight scene is shocking not just because it has a man get a linoleum cutter in the eye, but that it also happens to someone when they’re most vulnerable. Clothes wouldn’t provide much protection to the blows being traded, but the fact that Nikolai is naked while taking them gives a much more visceral and painful atmosphere to an otherwise highly choreographed (and highly Hollywoodesque) fight scene.
The fact that Nikolai works as some undercover operative for scotland yard or whatever, never really stood well for me. It reeks like it was shoehorned in there to explain the ambiguity of Viggo’s character. As curiously enough, you can skip all the scenes involving the police investigation and you will just about get the same movie. It has the affect of cheapening Nikolai by giving him an mundane reason for not shooting Anna’s uncle, or giving a girl in a whore house some money to give her some hope that it will all end.
Ambiguity in a character can give them more depth, as i as a viewer can ask some questions about why this person would do such things. Maybe Anna reminds him of someone he knew? Or maybe he’s conflicted about what he does deep down, but he’s too deep into things to not? The list can go on, and the writing and performances are strong enough to support them, but then the twist happens and all of it is more or less flushed down the toilet.
The twist also leads to me having a very hard time accepting that Nikolai could somehow become the head of the Russian mafia, the idea that someone who couldn’t break the law could become the leader of a criminal organization that deals in drugs and human trafficking is frankly preposterous. Again just cut all of this out, and the movie bizarrely still works.
I’m aware that it makes me seem like a cold hearted bastard, but Tatiana’s voice over narrations of her diary start to grate on me after a while. I don’t deny that many people go through the same horrific ordeals* and that if they were written down they would sound the same, but lines like:
“they have sealed the windows… so i cannot throw myself out…”
Make me groan, it could be the voice actor’s inflection, delivery, or accent but all of it just seems like they’re trying to wring the melodrama from the script with both hands with the constant narration.
While i do have reservations about certain plot developments, they do not stop “Eastern Promises” from being a thoughtful and provocative gangster film.
You could even call it a great one.
OUT OF FIVE
i found an interesting post explaining what Viggo’s tattoos mean, have a look its very interesting.
*this particular story, while not being human trafficking specifically is related and honestly heart breaking.