A Social Mask
The films of David Cronenberg, as diverse as they are, seem to all have a common aesthetic and thematic thread running through them. There is a certain clinical precision and even remoteness that they seem to share, and a penchant for psychological reasoning of the more bizarre human behavior as well as grotesque body horror. That’s something you’ll hear often associated with the man, body horror. This is even evident in a film like “Eastern Promises”, which some would say is uncharacteristic for the director because on the surface it is a pretty straightforward crime thriller. Some would even say that this genre implication makes it a lesser Cronenberg film.
This is of course silly because this man has actually made his name by making genre films. Sure, those are very intellectual and extreme films, but they are also on the surface pretty straightforward genre films. So if Cronenberg for you is only grotesque “body horror” then yeah, this might be a lesser Cronenberg film. But for me this crime genre examination and more restrained approach to violence make it not only one of Cronenberg’s most accessible films but also one of my favorite.
Anyway, what keeps me coming back to “Eastern Promises” is first and foremost the amazing exploration of the Russian mob culture. The rigid honor system is quite fascinating as are the tattoos and the underlining iconography and what it represents. Then there’s also the social mask of this organization in the fact that the mob in this film is primarily portrayed through the prism of family and a family business. The juxtaposition of the two is amazing to say the least. The film even pushes this image system constantly as we see in one scene a happy family gathering and in the very next the most heinous crimes are being discussed.
This juxtaposition mostly reflects through the character of Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who in person projects the calm warmth of the perfect grandfather figure while on the other side we hear of him as this ruthless monster. Mind you we never see this monster fully exposed; we only see glimpses and even those are quite frightening. It’s a great character played by a great actor. But Mueller-Stahl’s performance is matched by Viggo Mortensen’s unforgettable turn as Nikolai, the mob’s driver. He is a walking mystery from the second he is on the screen and his journey almost commands for at least two viewings of this film. He is our protagonist and in many ways our guide through this exotic world of a Russian mob that operates in London, and with him we see all the facets of it.
As the film’s main story revolves around the prostitution ring employed by Semyon we also see the darkest corners of that world as well. This is where that shock of Cronenberg comes in, but it comes in the clinical portrayal of reality. This does not mean that there is no violence in this film, after all this is a crime film and a Cronenberg film to boot. Of course there is violence and it’s characteristically cold and graphic and in many ways real – it’s sharp, fast and painful, there is no stylization or exaggeration. So these scenes are mostly short and shocking - they are scenes of murder and the film doesn’t really have prolonged action scenes. Well there is that now infamous fight scene in the bathhouse, but apart from that this film is surprisingly restrained for the most part, which again perfectly reflects this unforgiving and violent world and its social mask.
But beyond just being this fantastic expose “Eastern Promises” is a great crime thriller. The characters are superbly constructed and just studying them is a rewarding exercise in its own because they all have psychological footing to stand on, and all their actions are drawn from that. And like I said this genre framework makes this probably the most accessible film of Cronenberg, but I also think that in many ways it is a great representation of his work without being esoteric. It’s clinical, it’s psychological, it’s violent and it’s genre.
Viggo Mortensen - Nikolai
Naomi Watts - Anna
Vincent Cassel - Kirill
Armin Mueller-Stahl - Semyon