Last weekend I treated myself to a movie. Actually, I kind of forced myself to go. After years and years of seeing an average of almost one movie a week, I have only seen a handful of movies in as many months. I was worried that I would lose touch altogether with what was going on in the world of film. So, in spite of having to choose between titles I wasn't particularly desperate to see, I made up my mind and went to Eastern Promises.
Well, I have good news and bad news. The bad news first. This film, focusing on a Russian crime family in London, is very grim and has several scenes of which one of my old college friends would have said: "I could have gone all day without seeing that." While I'm channeling people absent, I imagine my brother Jake would respond to some of the same scenes with the words: "That's never good." This is to say, there were about half a dozen moments in the movie that made me wish someone would have warned me to shut my eyes, because I would rather not have seen them. They were that graphic. But alas, I was the only person there. It was sometimes as if director David Cronenberg (whose catalogue of films does suggest a streak of sadism) personally had me pinned down, forcing these ghastly images upon me: images of throats being cut, dead bodies being mutilated, and so forth: images on which the camera lingered, as it were, with gruesome glee.
The good news is that the movie has Naomi Watts, Viggo Mortensen, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Vincent Cassel. It combined an atmosphere of tension and growing dread with a fiendishly clever plot that approaches the elegance of a classic tragedy. On a small, intimate scale, and with a far more earthy texture, it almost does for the Russian mob what The Godfather did for the Sicilian one.
I love The Godfather. I view it as a breathtakingly tragic twist on the ancient "quest myth" lineage: a one-way journey through the looking glass; a descent into the underworld from which there is no return. Eastern Promises follows a very similar arc, with the addition of some richly ironic surprises. Without romanticizing the Anglo-Russian underworld, it introduces us to its shadowy realm of betrayals, secrets, vicious brutality, and (paradoxically) family loyalty and even tenderness. And where Michael Corleone began as the spotless golden-boy and ended as the devil himself, Viggo Mortensen's Nikolai begins as an enigmatic and vaguely threatening character, delivers a succession of surprises alternately grisly and redeeming, and ends up in a more creepily ambiguous position than where he started.
Before I lose your attention entirely, may I also mention that he fights off two fully-armed bathhouse assassins while wearing nothing but tattoos? I think Cronenberg may finally have achieved the absolute and irrevocable "over-the-top fight scene to end all over-the-top fight scenes." And he manages it without making Mortensen look too good - which, given the actor's proven grace and physical endowments, is its own kind of cinematic feat.
The story of Eastern Promises concerns a hospital midwife (Watts), who tries to track down surviving friends or family of a Russian girl who died in childbirth on her shift. Her only clue is a diary written in Russian, and a flyer from a local Russian restaurant. The restaurant turns out to be a front for the film's Brando figure (here played by a quietly terrifying Mueller-Stahl), whose flamboyant son Kirill (played by Cassel) has all his dirty work done by his chauffeur, bodyguard, friend, and dogsbody Nikolai. The plot thickens as the old man tries to contain the fallout from the girl's rape and death, the son triggers a war with a Chechen gang, the midwife persists in trying to find out the truth, and everything increasingly pivots on the question of whose interests Nikolai really serves. As powerful as the film's ending is, its final answer to this question will not leave you easy in your mind.
All the actors fill their roles with touching humanity - even while playing the worst people imaginable. When Viggo Mortensen puts on a Russian accent (or even talks in Russian), you wonder why he hasn't played this role all his life. The apparent fate of a certain lovable character makes you catch your breath, while the conduct of another may leave you biting back swear words; the dialogue crackles, the surprises surprise, the suspense grips, and the shocks are searingly intense. But what "wows" you is finally the whole course of the movie, which is truly known only as it reaches its destination.