Eastern Promises
More Than Anyone Bargains For

Eastern Promises is a “Mafia” movie, a brutal, graphic, ugly, and desperate film, that depicts a Russian Mafia family and its victims. The evil that men can do to one another is seldom illustrated more concretely than in this film. An industry insider talked to me after our screening, and her comment was “bleak.” I couldn’t agree more. Bloody bleak indeed. Lots of blood and lots of bleakness, and if bleakness could be measured I would call it a bushel of bleakness.

In this world there are people who participate in a closed loop of life that most of the rest of us never ever see. We call it the Mafia. We also sanguinely imagine a world that doesn’t affect us. So we ignore the quaint little people that fight over drug turf and union bosses.

Viggo Mortensen as Nikolai in Eastern PromisesMafia movies tend to glorify this lifestyle. We project upon crime families our own ideas of what these folks must experience from day to day. For example: A close-knit family and the trappings of wealth that dilute this world into one where The Godfather is mere hyperbole. It appears attractive enough to make one consider the trade-offs of living in that world.

Eastern Promises states emphatically that the Mafia ain’t attractive. It is ugly as hell. Just plain gruesome. There is no mere allusion to violence here; it is acted out and very realistically performed. The Mafia looks, tastes, and is bad! These are simians with knives. All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one. (Psalm 14:3)

Still, there is some positive stuff in this piece of art. In the category of special effects, I think we have an award-winner for director David Cronenberg (who also directed A History of Violence, which I haven’t seen despite the strong recommendations of a film-buff friend). Eastern Promises is the future of violent movies; Cronenberg evokes the horror of human evil. He spares no one in the process so we can see ourselves in his work.

Eastern Promises will probably introduce full male nudity to the mainstream as well. Women have long since been exploited in mainstream movies, and now, I guess, it is time for equal access. I am admittedly ignorant of most of Cronenberg’s films, especially as I have seen close to zero horror genre films. But I must say that Cronenberg is a talented director.

I am having trouble describing the story of this film without giving away too much of the plot. So I won’t. I will just tell you that this film is about the violence that men do to one another, the innocent victims that these rot-gut men draw into their world, and the deadly consequences to all. One important point that writer Steven Knight goes to great length to illustrate is that good (read: less-sick) men, in the midst of this darkness, must play along with the violence. In a sense, some of the victims are simply collateral damage and must be expendable in order to accomplish justice or a greater or lasting good. Judging from the vulgar photography of this film, I don’t think Knight is too keen on that method of justice. The tag line is “Every sin leaves a mark.” Okay, that should do it.

Viggo Mortensen stretches his chops and pulls together a strong performance as Nikolai. His character is simultaneously creepy and approachable. You wish him well, but he has made his bed with some pretty raunchy characters. I found myself pulling for him the whole film. I also knew he was one bad dude. He is an ape-like goon like the rest of his comrades, but still allows a human element to escape.

Naomi Watts ambles half-heartedly into her role as Anna Kitrova. As accurately violent as this film is, Naomi Watts plays the same serene dispassionate character I couldn’t root for in King Kong. When the big bad Mafia gorillas start moving in, I half expected her to do a somersault to throw them off—just like she did for the other ape she co-starred with.

I left the theater in deep thought—probably the right response if you ask the writer and director. My thoughts? Well, I am curious how many more movies we need like this. You can only get so naked, so it seems the only direction filmmakers can go is more graphic violence.

Eastern Promises should be rated NC-17, but of course it isn’t. It’s rated R for “for strong brutal and bloody violence, some graphic sexuality, language and nudity.” No one would watch it if it were properly rated. The vast majority of our readers here won’t like it, I can guarantee. That is my Eastern Promise!

Courtesy of a local publicist, Mike attended a press screening of Eastern Promises.