The glamorization of crime has as much to do with the mob as it does the movies. Because of its strictures that exist outside the limits of the law, the rights and duties, honors and codes becomes the art design for a million cinematic statements. Part of the relish in something like The Godfather is watching these ritualistic rationales play out, as well as sneaking a peek behind a frequently unseen curtain. But the genre itself is also a mirror, reflecting the level of sameness in, say, a South Central Los Angeles gang and a high ranking Hong Kong triad. It’s all about family, force, and the freedom to indulge in the blurry border between capitalism and corruption. In his latest mean streets masterwork, Eastern Promises venereal horror icon David Cronenberg takes the Russian mafia to task. It’s part of a bigger picture dissection of how obsession makes even the most moral individual turn.
Our story begins when midwife Anna (a wonderful Naomi Watts) stumbles across the diary of a dead girl. With a newborn baby left behind, she’s desperate to locate some manner of family abroad. With the help of her immigrant uncle Stepan, she translates a few pages of the text, and learns of the girl’s name (Tatiana), her trip from Russia, and her initial contact with a local London restaurateur Semyon (a diabolic Armin Mueller-Stahl). When she approaches the seemingly genial gentleman, he promises to get to the bottom of the Tatiana’s situation. But since Anna has a copy of the diary as well, the secrets it contains suddenly threaten the incognito mobster’s standing. He puts his son Kirill (Vincent Cassell, stealing every scene he’s in) and dedicated ‘driver’ Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) on the case of reclaiming the journal, quieting anyone connected with it, and retrieving Tatiana’s baby. Even the slightest slip up could mean chaos for Semyon’s omnipresent power structure.
At first, it feels like Eastern Promises is going to revolve around an unconscionable connection between Anna and Nikolai. They run into each other several times during the opening act, and each time, there’s a growing sense of attraction and mystery between the pair. We keep waiting for the inevitable moment, the situation which allows both characters to remove their outer façade and become real, recognizable people. But Cronenberg isn’t out to explore that particular narrative thread. Indeed, many of the standard crime story motifs that have come to define the cinematic category are completely ignored by this wonderful film, making it an anomaly in an otherwise recognizable realm. Sure, there is blood, and death hangs its shingle over almost every onscreen action, but as a director, this is one artist who is looking for new canvases to compile. Eastern Promises will remain recognizable, but only partially so.
Instead of going for gratuity, Cronenberg is out to understand human arrogance. He wants to know what makes one group of people – in this case, displaced Russian hoodlums – think they can flaunt the conventions of civilized society. He does so by contrasting Semyon with his son, offering an older man of unspeakable evil with a young stud who barely has the backbone to handle the small stuff. Obviously doomed from the start, Vincent Cassell turns Kirill into a walking contradiction, a man who loves power but can’t wield it in a way that’s successful or substantive. He lucks into his tainted triumphs, and relies heavily on Nikolai to mop up his messes. Semyon, on the other hand, is cruelty covered in a fine patina of paternity. He’s like everyone’s elderly grandpa - that is, if said relative was a repulsive, irredeemable rapist. It’s to his credit that Cronenberg never lets Mueller-Stahl act on his reputation. Suggestion works much better than having all of it shown.
At the opposite end is Mortensen’s Nickolai. His is a brute that is all outer trappings, from his jet black wardrobe and Secret Service sunglasses to the elaborate tattoos that trace his horrible history of violence. We are given reason to fear this mystifying man, especially after witnessing the offhand way he handles the disposition of a corpse. Even more intriguing, you will never see a gun in Eastern Promises. Every act is tactile, requiring a knife or handy tool to tackle. When Mortensen’s character is confronted in a bath, his full frontal nude body battling with two dagger wielding hitmen, it’s more than just a homoerotic stunt. Cronenberg wants to illustrate that real men don’t need a phallic substitute (read: a firearm) to create unspeakable destruction. All they need is a sharpened blade and a will to survive. As one of the film’s setpiece splatter sequences, Nickolai’s naked clash is a classic.
But it’s also antithetical to the movie’s main point. As with most syndicate activity, insinuation and rumor is far more effective at keeping things under control than direct confrontation and destruction. It’s obvious from the moment Semyon learns of the diary. The contents do indeed worry him, but the sign of weakness amongst the other bosses is far more problematic. Like a massive game of multilevel chess, the slightest miscalculation can mean utter defeat. It’s the reason the understated Don is so mad at his son. He sees recklessness and a streak of irredeemable drunken sloppiness – elements that function in direct contrast to the strategic aims of the syndicate. It’s a model of interconnected complexity that illustrates how difficult these dynasties are to take down. But it also underlies the notion that everyone here is out for their own selfish motives. Even the supposed heroine is far from pristine.
Indeed - don’t be fooled. Naomi Watts’ Anna is no innocent here. She has her own selfish reasons for learning of Tatiana’s family, though the underpinning isn’t apparent at first. Cronenberg only hints at the pain this childless woman experiences especially as someone serving biology day in and day out while her own personal prayers go unanswered. Yet in several close contact conversations with her mother, we begin to see the truth. Without spoiling the situation, it’s clear that circumstances in Anna’s past are coloring her concern, leading all pathways directly back to her own maternal instincts. No one else in the film feels the same way, and it’s shocking the Cronenberg would introduce such a mercenary facet into this narrative. But because we keep expecting certain ‘good vs. evil’ avenues, it’s that much easier of the director to take us down an unexplored backstreet.
As a matter of fact, much of Eastern Promises is a window into a world we know little about. While pageantry and grandeur paint the Russians as much as the Italians (a major confrontation occurs during a ceremonial banquet), Cronenberg stuffs this storyline with all manner of insider details. We learn of the Yakuza-like significance of body art, what stars on one’s knees means, how slander and sexual defamation means more than a random killing, and why the collapse of communism led to such inhuman hostility. It’s intriguing material, made even more emblematic by how this director incorporates it into the subtext. Some hold a significant place in the plot. Others are asides that only come back to resonate later.
Perhaps the best thing about Eastern Promises, however, is its lack of conclusiveness. We definitely get an ending, and an epilogue wrap-up featuring a calculated character “where are they now.” But there is no real sense of resolve, no suggestion that everything is right in this one time very wrong world. Instead, the tableaus suggest change, but little in the way of finality. Roles may have changed, and situations settled, but there is still trouble brewing. One can sense it. You can even see it in a person’s slow, controlled deliberation. It’s a look that can only come from contemplating the next move. Unlike other movies in his canon, which end on a shot that suggest definiteness, David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises remains an enigma. And considering the genre he’s working in, it explains crime’s continuing hold on our consciousness.