David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises takes on the Russian mafia in a rainy, murky London. We go along with Russian mobsters, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) and Krill (Vincent Cassel), as well as the good-natured nurse Anna (Naomi Watts) within the brutal criminal underworld.
What makes this film cut above your average crime story is how the lives of a gangster family and an ordinary woman become interlocked. Anna doesn’t know what she’s gotten herself into when she tries to track down the family of a teenage girl, who died in childbirth. The only thing she has to go on is a diary that the girl left behind, which is of huge importance to the Russians.
There’s a load of damaging evidence against the mobsters written in the diary, so they’re eager to get their hands on it. Anna soon learns of the lengths these people are willing to go to cover up anything that could potentially destroy their organisation. All Anna cares about is finding a home for the baby, but the more she digs, the deeper she is embroiled in the dark, seething world of crime.
If I haven’t made it clear already, Eastern Promises is a film that puts its characters before the plot. And to me, this is a film where the narrative is a backdrop for the stories of plausible human beings. Nikolai is both ruthless and mysterious, serving as “Cleaner” for the mafia family. In other words, he removes evidence and disposes of dead bodies. Mortensen plays a guy that shifts between good and bad, so he brings moral weight to the role.
Krill is an out of control, psycho criminal, the kind of character we’ve seen many times. Cassell is a beast in this film, but not quite as effective as the scary mobsters that have come before. For example, will anyone ever beat Joe Pesci’s crazy-bastard performance in Goodfellas?
In regard to the performances, the casting directors made some fantastic choices. Mortensen is something of an acting genius. In every film I’ve seen him in, he dominates the screen with his cool, commanding composure and his seen-it-all attitude. He’s an actor that I find captivating and he seems to be fairly understated in the traditional sense. It’s not often you hear someone say, “Have you seen that new Viggo Mortensen movie?” As a whole, all the actors are excellent, having finely tuned their roles and the result is a surprisingly layered film.
Then there is the violence, which is extremely graphic, but authentic. As always, Cronenberg doesn’t do things by half measures here. There is one fight sequence that really churns your stomach. It’s more than violent – it’s savage-like and shocking, but still, I rank it up there with the very best fight scenes in cinema because it’s literally eye-popping.
Eastern Promises packs plenty of style without actively trying to be a stylish movie if you get what I mean. It’s just about how these characters live their lives and what happens when they’re put to a test. It doesn’t seem like it will be a morality tale when you first start watching, but it becomes something complex.
Genuinely bad characters are at the heart of Eastern Promises, but hints of humanity manage to exist in all of them. Although the ending is a let-down, this is a really good film with a lot of wits and courage.
Director: David Cronenberg
Writer: Stephen Knight
Stars: Niaomi Watts, Viggo Mortensen, Vincent Cassel, Josef Atlin, Sarah -Jeanne Labrosse, Jerzy Skolimowski
Distributor: Focus Features
Run Time: 101 minutes.