Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Eastern Promises (2007)

Director: David Cronenberg
Screenplay: Steve Knight
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, and Vincent Cassel.

Images from the 2007 Focus Features release.

Eastern Promises, I am inclined to think, is one of David Cronenberg’s best works; a film that depicts the inheritance of social standing with heartbreaking detail. I know that some of Cronenberg’s fans have been disappointed with his turn to what is generally seen as more popular material, but I couldn’t be more impressed. What’s so refreshing is to see an artist not content to make the same film over again, but rather tinker with his own conventions, adding new layers to his repertoire while continuing to explore themes that interest him. Perhaps it helps that the first two Cronenberg films I saw were A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. When I saw them, I had no idea who he was, and as such, did not carry with me the rest of his oeuvre. I've now worked through 12 of his features, and I've grown to see the Mortensen collaborations as two of the most thoughtful meditations on the nature of violence. Deciding which of the two is better is difficult for me, but I am slowly convincing myself that Eastern Promises is the more complete work, with a pace that feels mournful and sad.

Eastern Promises 1

If you’re wondering why I used the above picture to introduce the film, and not Naomi Watts or Viggo Mortensen, it’s because I believe the shot is one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful in the film: a young woman used as an object for a rite of passage. The film may be about another girl’s story, but this woman and every other woman has a story too, and her vacant gaze as she sings a lullaby reveals a soul so damaged, that where she comes from and who she is is reduced to names and facts. Whatever ambition she once had, perhaps to support a family or start a new life, is gone now and all that remains is a life of prostitution. She has been forced into this so brutally that we can see her spirit waning as she stares blankly into nowhere, having been chosen like a horse from a stable. To those trafficking women, she is viewed not as a human being but as a commodity to be bartered, sold, tortured, or used. It is frighteningly true, yet it is something most of us turn a blind eye to, as if our ignorance of the problem will make it disappear.

Cronenberg excels at portraying violence as it ought to be: Horrible, brutal, nauseating, and clumsy. Yet he is rarely exploitative of violence, and much of his work, including Eastern Promises, is more interested in developing characters. When violence does bubble to the surface, it erupts with such force that I continue to cringe after many viewings. You see action movies today, and most of the action has lost its shock value. The editing in those epic battle sequences has become so cookie cutter, you may as well just stick with The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Death has become belittled to a split second shot of a faceless enemy dying. These sorts of films, in a way, are morally reprehensible in their treatment of death as entertainment. Eastern Promises (and A History of Violence, for that matter), subverts the Hollywood convention. Even though the violence in something like Kill Bill is more graphic, the violence in Cronenberg’s films feels uncomfortable, grimy, and less exhilarating by comparison.

I’ve often wondered if violence should even have an entertainment value. I do enjoy movies like King Kong (2005) and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, yet they are guilty of defusing the brutality of violence for the audience’s comfort. And John Woo’s Hard Boiled is maybe the ultimate treatment of human beings as bodies to put bullets into and I still admire it. I can’t really account for why I still like these films at this point. Perhaps it is human to be drawn to violence, and the sort that does not make us cringe is what audiences crave most. I do think the value of showing the consequences and horrors of violence, however, has a significant place in the cinema, and it’s refreshing (?) to see Cronenberg do it with unnerving success.

Eastern Promises 4

The fight scene in the sauna is one of the most brutal and ugly things I’ve seen in the cinema, and that, I think, is the core of Cronenberg’s philosophy to violence. Treating it as something real, rather than fantasy does not allow the audience to regard it at arm’s length. Instead, the film pushes the violence uncomfortably close to the audience, not offering them an external experience but rather a visceral one. Having Nikolai fight naked in a sauna adds a level of realism, and the audience identifies with his own vulnerability. Fight scenes in many Hollywood movies have the nasty habit of making it sleek and elegant, and the hero suffers minor scratches at best. In Eastern Promises, Cronenberg does not spare the audience and Nikolai is brutally slashed with linoleum knives.

Speaking of which, the setting and mode of attack is another stroke of genius. Cronenberg said he used linoleum knives because if the two guys were caught with them they could say: “They’re for work. We’re linoleum cutters.” Cronenberg is intentionally subverting the conventional switchblades of gangster films, grounding it that much closer to reality. These knives tell me: violence is not something remote, but it can happen at anytime and with the simplest of tools (a screwdriver or a hammer could've been used for that matter). The sauna, too, is not a normal association with violence. It is in fact, thought of as a sanctuary for peaceful discussion and meditation; a place for healing rather than wounding. Yet it is, in a way, Cronenberg’s own arena of meditation on violence, and as he exposes the audience to this brutality, he is getting under their skin and making them feel vulnerable. Vulnerability, I think, is a key part of Eastern Promises.

Eastern Promises 2

Eastern Promises penetrates the surface of the Russian mob, concerning itself not with mechanics but with the people involved and the shockwaves of their criminality. This movie makes me feel so vulnerable, in part because I inhabit these characters’ own vulnerability. The scene where Kirill makes Nikolai have sex with one of his father’s prostitutes (from his own “stable”) is such a demeaning, exposed rendition to what is normally considered intimate and private. And afterwards, as I’ve already written, we see the damage of forced prostitution. Nikolai asks Kirilenko where she’s from, and how she responds is more important than what she says. She whispers her hometown like a faded memory that hangs by a thread. She appears lost in thought, willing herself to block out the awful treatment of her humanity. When Nikolai says: “stay alive a little longer,” I wondered what that meant. The first time I saw Eastern Promises, I doubted any benevolent intentions, but after a fourth viewing, I now think Nikolai had the hope of saving her. Martin Scorsese calls it the “goddess-whore” complex, and I’m inclined to believe Eastern Promises does it as well, if not better than, Taxi Driver.

After all, the central story of Eastern Promises is concerned with a woman who is forced into prostitution, raped and impregnated, and then dies giving birth. Birth is the miracle of life, and the tragedy is that in many parts of the world, giving life means a woman’s sacrifice of her own. It is the one thing men will never have the power to fully control. The gangster movie is often an arena for masculinity on display, and in Eastern Promises, the fa├žade of male power is flayed back to reveal their internal weaknesses. That men seek to force a woman’s ability to bear a child is terrible, yet it happens. And regardless of whether the audience wants these stones uncovered or not, Cronenberg is intent on lifting them up to reveal the horrors that exist in the world, because denying their existence will not make them go away.

The tattoos are a source of vulnerability as well as pride. To see them is to allow your entire life to be read: you are on display. It’s the body language, and by extension, the body, that tells who you are, not your words. They can be a source of pride and for Kirill, they mark his inheritance: “These stars are a fucking birthmark.” For Nikolai, the inheritance comes from an inability to escape his past. Any action that is performed is carried with him throughout his life, symbolized by the tattoos. In a way, this makes Eastern Promises a sequel-in-spirit to A History of Violence, which was also concerned with the idea of whether we could put aside our past and start anew.

Eastern Promises 3

Inheritance is another layer to Eastern Promises, and it is intrinsically linked with the idea of an heir. Kirill doesn’t strike the same presence as his father (the subplot is concerned with a murder he orchestrated for rather petty reasons), yet Semyon clings to the fact that their blood is the same. He is willing to sacrifice the more practical Nikolai to save his weaker bloodline. At the same time, the illegitimate bloodline in Tatiana’s baby can be used against him, so he orders it to be destroyed. Kirill isn’t perfect (surprise!), but he has a level of humanity that brings a measure of hope. His inability to kill Tatiana’s child (and his half brother) is the mark of a merciful soul not beyond redemption.

If Eastern Promises is more brutal than A History of Violence (and I say it is), then it is also more hopeful by the movie’s end, offering the audience a reprieve that feels welcome and even deserved. I don’t believe the ending is a cop-out at all, because just as not every movie needs a happy ending, not every one need to drown the viewer in endless sorrow. Eastern Promises offers us hope in Anna, and her home feels like a sanctuary. Yet I wonder if this success story of Tatiana’s child will distract audiences from the hard fact that this is just one case in thousands of others. We are left not with a sense of closure and happiness, but with a sense of unease; something neither uplifting nor depressing but a decided uncertainty. I don’t know what’s the proper way to end a movie like this, and I am left wondering what intentions Cronenberg and Knight had (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing).

Eastern Promises 5


  1. What a thorough, thoughtful, and articulate review. I watched this movie just a few nights ago, and I must say that you covered everything I saw in the movie and more. I especially liked your meditation on the depiction of violence in contemporary movies and on Cronenberg's attitude to violence (a subject he often deals with) in this one. I haven't seen a Cronenberg movie in a while (I haven't seen "A History of Violence") and am not overly fond of graphic violence (especially when it's used as entertainment rather than as a subject to challenge the viewer's perceptions--Tarantino's movies are an example of the former, and sometimes Scorsese seems to be right on the dividing line), but this movie, like Scorsese's best, had a lot to say about the subject and needed to present the subject realistically. "Eastern Promises" struck me as in many ways a modern update of the mob genre, but placing the conventions of the genre in the context of the Russian Mafia, adding new twists (like the whole subplot about Watts and her family), and some inventive touches (like the fight in the steam bath you wrote about) made the movie seem fresh. Cronenberg is to me an uneven director, but as well as this movie I thought "The Dead Zone," "Dead Ringers," and especially "Naked Lunch" were excellent films.

  2. Thanks R.D.,

    Back in the day (not that long ago; maybe 4-5 years), I used to handle violence easily and even enjoyed it (my opinion of Tarantino has cooled quite a bit). I wonder why I was like that. Maybe it was because I was younger and had a sadistic side when it came to movies. Nowadays, I find the set-'em-up-shoot-'em-down kind of violence to be morally questionable. We are, after all, talking about human lives being lost, and a split second shot is what death is reduced to? I'm finding that if violence does not cause discomfort, it may not have the effect to ought to have.

    For me at least, Cronenberg is one of the most fascinating living directors, and I've rarely been disappointed with his work. The discomfort he causes is something I admire, because he's constantly pushing the audience to think about what they're watching and challenging their expectations. I think I hold "Videodrome," "Naked Lunch," "Crash," "A History of Violence," and "Eastern Promises" in the highest regard. I need to rewatch "Dead Ringers," which I liked although I found it uncomfortable even for my taste. Jeremy Irons does pull off one of the great double performances, however (second only to Irene Jacob in "The Double Life of Veronique").

  3. If Eastern Promises and A History of Violence is all you've seen of Cronenberg, then you haven't seen Cronenberg at all. You've seen Cronenberg/Mortensen. I was sure this sentence, "...fans have been disappointed with his turn to more popular material, but I couldn’t be more impressed. What’s so refreshing is to see an artist not content to make the same film over again, but rather tinker with his own conventions, adding new layers to his repertoire while continuing to explore themes that interest him." was about Viggo, not Cronenberg.

    I have seen other Cronenberg films prior to these two and prior to my awareness of Viggo Mortensen. I've seen "Dead Zone", "The Fly", "Dead Ringers", "M. Butterfly" and "Spider" prior to EP and HoV and I liked them all, but found each one to be incredibly different. I think Cronenberg is flexibly brilliant and Viggo put the grounding in these too. Just my opinion.

  4. Anonymous: I haven't only seen "A History of Violence" and "Eastern Promises," otherwise I wouldn't have written what you cited.

    I've seen the following:

    The Dead Zone
    The Fly
    Dead Ringers
    Naked Lunch
    A History of Violence
    Eastern Promises

    many are among my favorites, particularly "Videodrome," "Naked Lunch," "Crash," "A History of Violence," and "Eastern Promises."

    What I meant by:

    "...fans have been disappointed with his turn to more popular material, but I couldn’t be more impressed. What’s so refreshing is to see an artist not content to make the same film over again, but rather tinker with his own conventions, adding new layers to his repertoire while continuing to explore themes that interest him."

    is absolutely about Cronenberg. It seems like *some* of his fans would prefer that he stay with less conventional films like "Crash" and "Spider," and that the two Cronenberg/Mortensen pictures represent a betrayal of sorts to his roots. Fans of only his older pictures have often dismissed these two, which is unfortunate because Cronenberg is continuing to explore themes that interest him while venturing into new cinematic territory.

    With "A History of Violence," he's maintaining ideas on violence and transformation while branching into neo-noir.

    With "Eastern Promises," he's subverting Hollywood conventions to the gangster picture.

    He's done this with the horror genre he began in, and a movie like "Videodrome" (more science fiction than horror) becomes a critique of media violence, an exploration of reality and illusion (which he does again in "eXistenZ"), and a commentary on how we as a species are evolving. What's really amazing is his ability to explore similar themes while transcending the limitations of his perceived "genre."

    Now I have to ask you a question:

    What do you mean by: "Viggo put the grounding in these too."?

    Do you think the Cronenberg/Mortensen pictures are a stain on Cronenberg's career? If so, that's the point I was making. Cronenberg's diehard old school fans are disappointed that he's "gone Hollywood" when nothing could be further from the truth. He's still making the films he wants to make, but he's always looking to try something new and different.

    What strikes me is Cronenberg's ability to work in such a diverse array of genres in spite of being thought of as a "horror director."

  5. I think the sentence you wrote applies to both Cronenberg and Mortensen.

    When I wrote: "Viggo put the grounding in these too."? I meant "two" - sorry! Meaning that Viggo's influence can be seen in both HoV and EP, and that this is what sets these two movies apart from other Cronenberg films.

    I think his fans should see his next two projects before making up their minds.

  6. "Do you think the Cronenberg/Mortensen pictures are a stain on Cronenberg's career?"

    No. I think HoV and EP were two of his best. And I don't think either were "blockbusters" or "too mainstream".

    However, when dealing with an artist whose work is as varied as Cronenberg's, it stands to reason that not all of his fans will like all of his work.

    I think his fans should see his next two films before writing him off as "too mainstream".

  7. Anonymous: Thanks for clarifying.

    I do agree that "A History of Violence" and "Eastern Promises" are not mainstream films, even if they look like it on the surface. Not only is Cronenberg's work diverse, but in virtually every genre he's worked in, he has defied that genre's conventions at some point.

    While you and I don't think he's "sold-out," it's something I have heard many times from some of his fans. I think they liked him for being a horror director more so than the unique, unclassifiable artist I consider him to be.

    I still need to see "The Brood," which is sitting on my shelf. I've been hesitant to look at "Fast Company" and "M. Butterfly," since even for the range in his films, they seem out there, but I'm more inclined to see "M. Butterfly" now.

  8. "Not only is Cronenberg's work diverse, but in virtually every genre he's worked in, he has defied that genre's conventions at some point."

    Defied or expanded upon? Even those films that are supposed to be "horror" films are not typical. I liked The Fly, but certainly not because it was a horror film and hard to watch in the last few minutes...it was because of what I learned about flies and human nature and teleportation, etc., etc.

    But I still say die-hard horror fans should not be disheartened by his last to movies. He has always made "non-horror" films in between. Or perhaps I just don't see them as horror films? Sure, The Dead Zone was based on a Stephen King book, and Stephen King is supposed to be a "horror author", but I thought the story, and the movie were more psychic thrillers than true horror movies. (And Dead Ringers and Spider are psychotic thrillers!)

    If you sat through Spider, I think you'll be able to handle M. Butterfly. I read it was based on a true story and that the main character's actions are responsible for the US's lack of success in Viet Nam. In any case, it will make you question our attraction to gender vs sexuality and deception and our own part in our own deception. Really interesting movie!

  9. Anonymous:

    "Defied or expanded upon?"

    It's almost like he uses a genre as a starting point, and then expands upon it until he has a film that can't really be classified. I think many of his "horror" movies are deeply rooted in science fiction, namely "Videodrome," "The Fly," and "eXistenZ." They all have the gooey horror center, but their ideas often cross over into what seems more like scientific and even philosophical musings, so transcend being classified. I would also add that "The Fly" is crossed (in the biological sense ;) ) with romance, and the love story there remains touching and tragic.

    If horror fans *ONLY* like him for his work in horror, then I don't know what to tell them. He's interesting in that he refuses to repeat himself, so I don't see him returning to straight horror (I think he joked that he has yet to reach his musical phase!). Of the work I've seen, "Rabid" seems like the closest to the horror genre, and yet the themes of infection and physical change are still there.

    Every one of his films marks a different stage of metamorphosis, and no two are the same. However, a thread can be drawn that connects each one of them (of the ones I've seen). No matter how different they all are, you can still see him guiding their thematic explorations: physical or psychological change, evolution, infection, reality/illusion, sexuality, death, violence, and probably more I haven't thought of.

  10. Nikolai did save the girl. Kiril mentions it in the kitchen to him that it was strange that the cops showed up, looking for the girl specifically by name.