Eastern Promises is a new mob classic

By Nikhil Gupta

The darker elements of human nature – our propensity for violence, our suppressed innate animalism – have always fascinated us. The criminal, the rejection of the morality binding human society for the embrace of violence and brutality, intrigues us. We seek understanding of the man behind the criminal mask, hoping to comprehend these individuals to prevent further crime. Yet at the same time, a part of us wishes we could be those individuals, rejecting what society offers us instead of being its obedient members. Over the past decades, classic mobster films such as “Scarface” or “The Godfather” emerged, chronicling the brutal world of mafias and dons, sparing the audience none of its grittiness, bloodiness, or sheer savagery while still capturing its insidious romantic allure. Certain images, like that of Al Pacino high on cocaine, screaming insanely as his drug gang empire falls crashing down around him, or the Don Corleone conducting business in the tall-backed seat of his office remain indelibly seared into our psyches. David Cronenberg’s new film, “Eastern Promises,” will unquestioningly join the ranks of these classic mob films in the years to come.

The film tracks the character of Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) as he journeys through London’s underworld and the Russian mafia. He is a driver and undertaker for the notorious Vory V Zakone criminal brotherhood, whose members have stars tattooed on their knees and shoulders symbolizing their refusal to bow before any being. Nikolai’s life is as uneventful as life can be in the underworld until he meets Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife at a hospital in London. Anna is deeply moved when a 14-year old rape victim and forced prostitute named Tatiana stumbles into the hospital and dies giving birth to the child. Anna is left with Tatiana’s diary, which is written in Russian and contains damning evidence against the Zakone brotherhood. She enlists the help of both her uncle Stepan and Semyon (Oscar-nominated actor Armin Mueller-Stahl), who, unknown to her, is the leader of the local chapter of the Zakone mafia, to translate the diary for her. From there, events begin a descending spiral into murder, betrayal, and revenge, as Nikolai has to deal with the threat to the gang as well as look after Semyon’s unstable son Kirill (Vincent Cassel).

While the plot line seems typical of a mobster movie, what ensures that “Eastern Promises” will become a classic is how different it is from other mafia films. Those of you expecting an entertaining action-flick complete with a dashing hero, intense explosions and furious car chase sequences, or a classic mob story replete with the rise and fall of the gang, bloody betrayal, and satisfying just vengeance will be thoroughly disappointed.

The film is instead a deeply moving examination of the humans embroiled in the mafia, brilliantly illustrating how their life circumstances and situations have shaped them as individuals. More importantly, Cronenberg blurs notions of good and evil and explores the possibility of human redemption.

One of the central relationships in the film is that between Nikolai and Kirill. Kirill is an unstable man, oftentimes unpredictably violent and disposed to wild mood swings. The film makes no attempt to hide the evil Kirill has done – from abusing 14-year olds to forcing women into prostitution. Yet Kirill can exhibit surprising compassion and love, particularly towards Nikolai, and the audience cannot help but feel sympathy for Kirill, who as a suspected homosexual is in turn a victim of his father’s brutality and the mob’s homophobic attitudes.

Kirill, from his violence to his drug abuse to his moments of tenderness, is entirely a creation of his circumstances, of the abuse he himself has suffered. With his character Cronenberg dismisses the Manichean view of criminals so common in mob films and shows us the human face behind the mask of criminality.

Cronenberg uses the character of Nikolai to further his exploration of human nature. As the movie unfolds, we see that Nikolai is a decent, honorable man, yet is compromising his morals one after another, blurring the line between right and wrong to achieve his goals. As his descent into the underworld continues, Nikolai is ultimately forced to confront his tortured conscience and determine if he is the man he wants to be.

Viggo Mortensen delivers the performance of his career as Nikolai, bringing the character to life and beautifully capturing the emotional turmoil he goes through. It is obvious that Mortensen invested considerable amounts of time in this film, perfecting his Russian and broken English accent. Furthermore, his subdued, minimalist acting style perfectly accentuates Nikolai’s character, bringing his turbulent conscience and emotions to the audience’s eyes with subtlety and class.

“Eastern Promises” is a brilliant film, perfectly executed by David Cronenberg. The picture is an ideal 100 minutes in length with Cronenberg utilizing every shot and scene to maximum effect. Its dark and somber tone coupled with its slow yet detailed portrayal of the mob captures the profound sorrow of the characters gorgeously. It is a film unlike other mobster films, a unique piece of art that will become a classic in years to come.

More than anything else what sets it apart is what it chooses to portray. Cronenberg does not show the audience the horrific violence of crime, like “Scarface,” nor the seductive allure of a classy mafia as in “The Godfather.” Instead, “Eastern Promises” leaves the audience with something far more beautiful and relevant to us all – the bitter sorrow of crushed and broken human aspirations.