Eastern Promises does have a lot to promise. Featuring top notch talent such as Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts, director David Cronenberg hot off his last award-winning [and Mortensen-starring] masterpiece A History of Violence and an unsettling plot about a woman who has accidentally become entwined with the Russian mafia, expectations for the film were high. And Eastern Promises lives up to them... for the most part.
As one might expect, Eastern Promises has its fair amount of ultra violence, which Cronenberg seems to enjoy adding even when his films appeal most to adult audiences. Some may find the violence or at least the gore (necks getting sawed at with razor blades until blood is squirting profusely from severed arteries, knives to the eyes, etc.) unnecessary, but that is part of the reason I am a growing fan of Cronenberg's work. Even in the most subtle or raw dramas (I am mainly referring to A History of Violence), he likes to shock the audience with sudden bouts of violence. The audience becomes squeamish, but that's all part of the act: his movie is about regular people who get involved with nasty things, and he makes the audience react accordingly.
The movie itself is well done, with a relatively well-paced story, some interesting developments and strong characters. There isn't as much action or violence as I was expecting, but then again, I really shouldn't have expected that much. There is certainly a lot more talking than fighting or killing, but that's fine; Cronenberg builds up tension with simple dialogue that comes off as more threatening when spoken aloud. Props go to screenwriter Steven Knight. The characters, both the good guys (Watts), the bad guys (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and those in an unreadable gray area (Mortensen), are well developed. Mueller-Stahl's is likable and easy to hate at the same time, and Mortensen's is so three-dimensional that you never really know what he's going to do next. If there was any character that was weak, it'd be Watts', as she just does some things I don't know a regular person would do, namely remain persistent in the face of some people who are clearly willing to kill. I'd like to think I'd be noble in her situation, but I sure as hell wouldn't go pick a fight with the Russian mafia.
Even though there isn't much action, the film is highlighted by several killings and a ruthless knife-and-fist fight inside a bath house. As the theater was filled with predominantly older females, I'm guessing people were willing to overlook the violence to see a fight scene that goes on for several minutes and features Mortensen naked, penis and all, taking out two assassins. Even with balls flying, the scene is an incredible one.
There is one twist that follows shortly later, one of those twists that is big enough that it should have been developed a bit more. Knight and Cronenberg drop this revelation on us quite suddenly, but then it's an afterthought by the next scene. It does change our impression of one of the characters, but it seems like Knight was satisfied in just revealing this fact to us and then letting the story go on as already expected, rather than taking a new direction. It isn't a bad twist, but one that is so ignored by the screenwriter that I wouldn't be surprised if some of the audience had forgotten about it by the end of the film.
The ending itself is a little weaker than I was hoping for, though, then again, when you're dealing with Cronenberg, nothing is necessarily conventional. I was hoping more for an ending like in A History of Violence, but Cronenberg and Knight go a different direction. On the one hand, it's disappointing, but on the other, it is perhaps a more fitting and believable ending.
Even with great direction and writing, the real power comes from the actors. While some of Watts' character's decisions are a bit questionable, she herself delivers a great little performance, though I wouldn't say it is as powerful as some in the past (think 21 Grams). Still, she fits the bill perfectly and plays off Mortensen well, who in turn has delivered another Oscar-worthy performance. It is always worrisome when an actor or, in this case several actors, adopt a Russian accent for a role, as many times the accent can distract from the performance. Such was the case in Harrison Ford's K-19: The Widowmaker, but not here. Mortensen and French actor Vincent Cassel (who plays Kirill) both are at the top of their games, and as far as I could tell, their Russian was quite acceptable. Both men turn in eerie and gritty performances, and their accents actually enhance those performances. It's probably unlikely, but I'll throw Cassel's name into the mix for Best Supporting Actor.
Eastern Promises is not without a few flaws, but it keeps rolling under the steady hand of Cronenberg. Terrific acting and a gritty, believable story make this film one of the year's best so far, though if things go as 2007 has gone, I don't expect this one to rank in the Top Ten (maybe the top fifteen).
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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