“Anger is dangerous. It makes people do stupid things.”
Congruent with David Cronenberg’s other projects, such as The Fly (1986) or Dead Ringers (1988), the 2007 British-Canadian co-production Eastern Promises delivers his trademark violence. Interestingly, no guns ever appear in this gangster film. Instead, Cronenberg uses curved linoleum knives to slice terror into the audience. The stripped-back savagery of the weapon, especially during the infamous bathhouse fight scene, inspires more repulsion and muted awe than any bullet ever could in today’s society.
British-Russian midwife Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) assists in the delivery of a baby, whose mother Tatiana (Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse) dies just as her daughter is born. The 14-year-old girl leaves behind a diary, which Anna, through her empathy and pity for the mother, finds herself drawn to. With the help of her uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski) and mother Helen (Sinéad Cusack), she manages to get some of it translated into English, but not before crossing paths with Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), an old vor in the Russian mafia. In a bid to keep the existence of the sex trafficking ring mentioned in the diary a secret, Semyon gets his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and the younger man’s right-hand Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) involved, showing Anna how her normal life is contrasted by the brutality of a world, which only a few can stomach.
The opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the film, nailing unsuspecting bodies to their seats. With our hearts in our mouths, we are drown in a symphony of thick Russian accents, which distort even the most neutral-sounding words. The shadows creeping down the walls and backs of the characters make kind faces appear unsettling, with Viggo Mortensen’s piercing blue eyes seeming colder than scraped ice. In fact, he is destabilisingly charismatic throughout the film, with his composure forging skin-itching tension both in the characters, and the audience.
The foundation of Eastern Promises‘ impossibly alluring acting paves the way for the meatiness of the film, unearthing a level of authenticity in the brutal acts that is as rare as it is magnetising. The squishing sounds of sliced flesh and gouged out eyes haunt us as we delve deeper into the unfolding intrigue.
Somewhere on the backdrop of dark cellars is Naomi Watts’ shining presence, casting warmth onto the blue-toned and dispassionate reality that her character has spent her whole life unaware of. The artful manipulation of colours conveys emotions in the most subconscious of ways. The contrast presented by them is heightened by the camera takes, which shift from close-ups to unsettling high angles and long shots. These make for an immersive dive into the presented world of crime, evoking the inevitability of its operational mechanisms.
Moreover, the bathhouse fight scene is the pinnacle of the realism of Eastern relations, direct and heartless to the core. What is truly noteworthy is how the plot itself aims to stimulate the brain as much as the visuals are meant to lure in off-guard gazes. No one is who they appear to be, and the dread that surrounds most of the events is built up in a mind that has been deprived of information. The most powerful weapon seems to be imagination itself, sure to paint the ragged edges of paranoia behind blank eyes. The concealed undercurrent of homophobia and homoeroticism adds to the elusive thread of the story’s conflict, revealing the most terrifying threat of all – the unpredicability of human behaviour.
All in all, even though Eastern Promises seems to start out much like all other gangster films, the plot’s growth spurt experiences the twists and turns of life, yanking us along. The bleakness of both human treachery and sacrifice will settle over you like a hefty cloak, but that’s just one of the reasons why Eastern Promises is worth a watch.
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