Eastern Promises (2007)

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Eastern Promises
Dir. David Cronenberg
Premiered at Toronto September 8, 2007

Throughout the 1990s, David Cronenberg took a sharp turn. Formerly the grandmaster of gross-out gore like Scanners and The Fly, he began to take on more serious fare, gaining critical praise and awards buzz from 2005’s A History of Violence and its follow-up, Eastern Promises.

Make no mistake, though; Cronenberg still has an unsurpassable flair for body horror, a fact that occurred to me while watching this film. An immigrant gangster story seemed tailor-made for New York, I thought; why set this story in London? And then I realized how much disturbing it is to watch people kill each other with knives, hand-to-hand, than with guns.

On Christmas Day, a teenage girl dies in childbirth in a London hospital, leaving behind a diary entirely in Russian. Her midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) initially takes the diary to her uncle to translate it, but after finding the card of a local Russian restaurant, she takes it to the restaurant owner, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl).

What Anna doesn’t realize is that Semyon is the kingpin of a ruthless mafia family– trafficking in heroin, sex slaves, and unadulterated terror. What’s more, the girl’s diary implicates Semyon and his manchild son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) in a litany of international crimes. Meanwhile, the Family runs afoul of some upstart Chechens, and bring aboard the cold, tranquil fix-it man Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), who possesses secrets of his own.

Eastern Promises is visceral and horrific in a way that few gangster films are, partly due to the choice to make the gangsters Russian. Let’s face it; if you were eating in a restaurant and Tony Soprano walked in, it wouldn’t be scary. These guys are another story. And the film keeps up this sense of terror by imbuing it with a constant sense of uncertainty; it’s never clear who is going to do what, but you know to expect the worst. This entire sensation pivots around Viggo Mortensen, who does an outstanding job as Nikolai, a man you can never quite read or predict until the final act.

Altogether, Eastern Promises is one of the best gangster films, if not the best, of the 2000s, and while I would not count it among the best of the best films of the year overall, it’s well worth a look from those who can steel themselves against the brutality that unfolds.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
The City of London Skyline consists of the Gherkin and a bunch of cranes. The Family’s heroin supply is constantly being cut off due to the American war in Afghanistan.

How Did It Do?
Although Eastern Promises grossed just $56.1 million against a $50 million budget, its status among cinephiles and especially gangster movie afficionados is legendary. Earning an 89% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, many critics praised the film’s uncompromising brutality, most notably in one of the most extraordinary fight scenes ever put to film, and which Cronenberg requested no critic spoil. Several critics listed it among the ten best of 2007, with Mark Doyle of Metacritic placing it at #1. Viggo Mortensen received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor and, despite the initial financial disappointment, plans began for a sequel before being quashed by Focus Features in 2013.

Next Time: Across the Universe

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