David Cronenberg has always been fascinated with physical manifestations of psychological dysfunction, of the body’s potential to transmute unknown fears into literal, fleshy horrors. No surprise then that Cronenberg would be drawn to the Vory v Zakone, a vicious wing of the Russian Mob, whose members’ pasts, presents, and likely futures, are literally written on their skin.
The world of the Vory v Zakone will be astonishing to even those well familiar with views of organized crime, of the familial and ethnic Mafia; the Vory featured in Eastern Promises occupy a world apart, birthed in the economic and ideological chaos of the Soviet collapse, a world of almost feudal brutality, where a caste-like status is denoted through hieroglyphic tattoos, where human chattel are bandied as disposable slaves, and where punishment or vengeance is meted out in the form of a blade ripping open your throat.
Yet as frightening as this world is, it also houses a kind of allure; how can such an alien, atavistic realm still exist, let alone in the streets of London? The opening scenes of Eastern Promises present us with a horrific throat-slashing and a troubled birth, both of which are equally bloody, and then unravels the connection between the two. Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), a British midwife, oversees the fatal delivery by an anonymous Russian teenager whose only possession is a tattered diary. Intent on protecting and providing for the newborn girl, Anna parses through the late young mother’s writings and asks her uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski) to translate the diary. Meanwhile, she starts her own investigation, questioning a local restaurant owner, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), whose card has been found among the girl’s things. Semyon shows a charming, paternal interest in Anna; he seems complicit and kind in his efforts to help her discover the mystery of the dead girl and her baby. But Semyon’s insistence on physically possessing the diary becomes more and more urgent, belying his gentle appearance and gestures.
As the layers begin to unravel, deeper and more complicated relationships are revealed, and Anna, against the warnings of her uncle, continues to be drawn to the restaurant and its enigmatic characters, as is the viewer. Anna is herself an Anglicized second-generation Russian, and her need to uncover the dead girl’s past becomes a need to discern her own binary heritage.
Semyon, it is revealed, is the monstrous patriarch of a local Vory chapter; his relationship to the dead girl and her baby could be extremely compromising. The restaurant is, of course, a guise for the theft, violence, and forced prostitution conducted by the organization. Anna also encounters two of the gang’s primary players: Semyon’s son and lieutenant, Kirill (Vincent Cassel), and his driver/bodyguard Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). Kirill is a rather vile character — frequently drunk, debauched, and obviously hapless in regards to his brutal father — his inferiority as a gangster and heir to Semyon’s throne is palpable. Nikolai, however, is completely inscrutable; taciturn and sedate, smirking behind a confident, slick sheen, he could be an inhuman badass, but it’s equally plausible he could be a buffoon, a Russian parody of cool — we just aren’t certain at first.
Mortensen, in this, his second time to play Cronenberg’s muse, turns in a pretty exceptional performance here; he’s almost completely unrecognizable due to sheer aloofness. Nikolai interacts more and more with Anna during her visits to the restaurant — an attraction is evident on his part, but never earnestly pursued; these episodes serve to give us a few glimpses of equally inscrutable compassion in this potentially lethal Mafioso. Nikolai’s enigma may initially seem like Mortensen’s torpor, but later we learn exactly why his character behaves so impassively, giving his portrayal an impressive dimension. But as many accolades as Mortensen is likely to receive, the most remarkable performance is probably Cassel’s. His Kirill has an air of nasty, cocksure bravura, so transparently masking his own shame and self-loathing in the face of his tyrannical father and more capable friend that we’re forced to hate and pity him in equal measure.
The plot of Eastern Promises, though integral, takes a backseat to the characters who occupy it; Cronenberg and screenwriter Stephen Knight are more concerned with the why’s than the what’s. Knight previously penned Dirty Pretty Things, a similarly mordant affair that also uncovered a subdural layer of London and likewise dealt in the commodification of human beings. Knight’s script might have made the film more of an ethical treatise, but Cronenberg turns it into something less discernible, more disturbing. Cronenberg’s dark formality, his spare use of music and sound, and his trademark displays of gut-wrenching violence (here exemplified in a ghastly knife-fight) give the film a tonal uncertainty and tension more unsettling than words could do justice to. Ultimately, Anna’s obsession with an anonymous Russian mother becomes a metaphorical quest of discovery, and the horrifying world of human bondage, feudal power, and bodily identification that she finds itself becomes an allegory for the post-Soviet experience. Eastern Promises offers us these dark musings in a cinematic masterwork, but without easy answers.
Phillip Stephens is the lead critic for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR.
Eastern Promises / Phillip Stephens
Film | September 25, 2007 | Comments ()