With America’s well-documented love for movie violence, it’s a bit surprising there haven’t there been more films about the Russian Mafia. I mean, the traditional mob has a rich cinematic tradition; everything from “The Godfather” to…”The Black Godfather,” and one of the most critically acclaimed television series of all time, HBO’s “The Sopranos,” just completed it’s six season run. It may be because the Cosa Nostra has become rather quaint in modern interpretation, the familiarity of its character archetypes and behaviors breeding contempt and all that (e.g. the “Analyze This” series), so it’s easier for audiences to view them as colorful foreigners rather than vicious murderers. The Russkies, on the other hand, still legitimately scare the shit out of most people.
The gangsters in David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises” are certainly not the type of people you’d want to cross. Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) is a self-proclaimed “driver” for one of London’s most feared Russian crime families, itself a member of the Vory V Zakone organization. Naturally, Nikolai has other useful skills, including knowing the best places to dump corpses. His captain is Kirill (Vincent Cassel), a volatile man with a love of drink and a conflicting desire to be Nikolai’s friend as well as his superior. Holding sway over all is Kirill’s father, Semyon (a brilliant Armin Mueller-Stahl), who operates a restaurant as legitimate cover for his massive criminal enterprise.
Though ambitious, Nikolai acts with deliberation, performing his tasks dutifully while trying to keep a reign on Kirill. Matters are complicated when local midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) shows up at Semyon’s restaurant. She’s come looking for information about a young Russian girl who died during childbirth, leaving behind only an infant girl and a diary. Anna first approached her Russian uncle, but his reluctance led her to look up restaurant, thanks to a business card found in the diary itself. Nikolai likes Anna, but information in the diary poses a threat to both Kirill and Semyon, leading the dour driver to face some difficult choices.
“Eastern Promises” is the second fairly mainstream movie in a row from Cronenberg following 2005’s “A History of Violence.” I wasn’t entirely taken with the latter, but “Promises” is a genuinely engrossing film, and one that should garner similar critical acclaim. Granted, the story of a criminal forced to confront the consequences of his own immorality is hardly new, but Mortensen so effortlessly brings Nikolai to life, and with such restraint, that you can’t help but be taken in by him. Likewise, Mueller-Stahl – equal parts grandfatherly and malevolent – conveys more menace in an offhand remark than most actors do pointing a loaded gun. In unveiling his strategy to preserve Kirill’s status as next-in-command, Mueller-Stahl shows Semyon to be the embodiment of ruthless calculation.
Of course, this is Cronenberg we’re talking about, so there’s going to be some blood. “Eastern Promises” is about organized crime after all, so it isn’t like there aren’t opportunities, but the sequence everyone will be discussing will be Nikolai’s climactic melee with two hitmen in a bathhouse. Mortensen goes completely starkers for the scene, and there are a surprising number of full-on frontal shots. It makes sense, since killing a guy in such a setting catches him at his most vulnerable. This shouldn’t be a problem for anyone possessing a higher than third-grade mentality, but for the rest of you: penis penis penis penis penis.
“Eastern Promises” doesn’t glamorize the mob lifestyle, far from it, but there’s a refreshing lack of editorializing as well. And while some storylines conclude to our satisfaction, others do not. Cronenberg’s decision to end the move in this somewhat open-ended fashion ultimately brings this rather bleak reality to the fore, as we are reminded that not everything is resolved as we would hope, and not all questions are every fully answered.