Eastern Promises

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I posted a review of Eastern Promises yesterday, as always, in the reviews area:

Eastern Promises

In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1966 film Torn Curtain, there is a prolonged, awkward murder scene, in which the victim struggles for a very long time before succumbing. “I thought it was time to show that it was very difficult, very painful, and it takes a long time to kill a man,” said Hitchcock. If you were to extrapolate that principle out onto an entire film, Eastern Promises is probably the type of film you would get.

The latest effort from acclaimed director David Cronenberg, Eastern Promises is a gritty story full of twists and turns. Its conclusion could be potentially described as both “happy” and “sad,” and it does not end so much as it stops.

The movie tells the story of a midwife named Anna (Naomi Watts) who helps an anonymous 14 year old girl give birth. The mother is tragically lost, but the baby survives, and the midwife takes it upon herself to find the girl’s family. All she has to guide her is the girl’s diary, which is in Russian, and needs to be translated. Her search leads her to Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a Russian crime lord who begins to take an inordinate amount of interest in the diary’s contents.

The setup is jarring and compelling, but from this point the film devolves into a number of well-tread plot devices. It’s not Cronenberg’s fault that movies about organized crime have left precious few new concepts to explore, and he does bring a certain freshness to them, but many of the mob-related scenes still feel slightly stale. It’s hard to say if this could be remedied with less emphasis, or more. Regardless, the half-measure we get is sometimes unsatisfying.

The technical execution, however, is nearly flawless. Viggo Mortenson apparently traveled around Russia and Ukraine for weeks before filming, without the aid of a translator, in an effort to immerse himself in the culture and hone his accent. As a result, Mortenson completely inhabits his character Nikolai, a rising star in the Russian mob.

The film is predictably gory, but it’s not so much a violent film, as it is a brutal one. To be sure, we’ve seen more blood than this, but rarely has it felt so authentic. Violence is never undertaken for its own sake, however; it’s all in the name of survival.

Ultimately, the film is a mass of duality and contradiction. Cronenberg’s style is paradoxically rooted in understatement, and it’s hard to discern a particular message or moral. The story is, for the most part, split into two segments; Anna’s, and Nikolai’s. Though they cross paths often, one can’t help but feel that a better film could have been made by focusing more on either of them. Nikolai’s back story, in particular, piqued my curiosity.

Eastern Promises is worth seeing for its technical precision alone, but one can’t help but feel that there’s a much better, more focused film somewhere underneath it all.


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Now, a few MoFos and Cronenberg fans took issue with my review in The Shoutbox, and predicted they would disagree. So far, I believe that only MattJohn has seen it, and he (shockingly!) disagrees.

So, let me expound on some of my complaints...

First, I didn't feel it brought anything especially new to the table. I was tantalized at the thought of a film centered around the Russian mob, but in Eastern Promises, it seems a good deal like the American mob with Russian accents. This may be factually correct, but I don't think it makes for a compelling movie. We've seen a lot of great mob movies over the years, and I didn't think this film had much to add to the genre.

Warning: most of the rest of this post is, if not spoilers, certainly spoiler-esque. I'm going to wrap most of it one giant spoiler tag, to be on the safe side.

WARNING: "Eastern Promises" spoilers below
Ah, that's better! I'll try to organize these thoughts a bit, but they're a bit freeform. My apologies for their relatively chaotic nature.

1) I didn't feel that the film was really about anything in particular. At first, it seems to be about Anna; she discovers the baby, and starts looking for her family, and any information she can find about the baby's mother. This is all well and good, but part-way through the film, it seems to be focused on Nikolai, and the double-crossings of the Russian underworld. But then, the film concludes with the young girl's voiceover about "finding a better life," at least implying that the film is actually about her.

Now, lots of good movies bounce from place to place, and from character to character, but they have the good sense to tell us something about their characters, so that the things we see are more compelling. In Eastern Promises, the only one we get any backstory for is Anna, and even then it's just the rather unimaginative idea that she feels attached to the baby because she once had a miscarriage.

Nikolai, meanwhile, is a total mystery. Was he recruited out of prison? Beforehand? Was he in prison at all, or was it faked to aid in his infiltration of the Russian mob? I can see some benefit in leaving these questions unanswered, but it's odd to know basically nothing about one of the film's primary characters.

Of course, it's odder still to not even know if the film has any primary characters. As a mob story, it's not particularly original, and for a character study it sure doesn't tell us much about its characters.

2) There's also a plot detail that bugged me...why did Anna make such a big deal out of finding the baby's family, and then adopt her anyway? Clearly, she is entertaining thoughts of adopting the girl from very early on, but decides (rightly, I think) that it's her duty to track down the girl's family, so that they can care for the baby. But after a number of events, the film jumps forward in time, at which point appears to have adopted Christine after all. What happened to tracking down the girl's family? Nikolai did give her the address, after all.

There was a brief allusion to a deadline, but she still has the address, and the little girl's family is still out there. That's a huge loose end, given all the trouble she went to to try to track them down.

3) Cronenberg tips his hand off before every death/attack. This is not necessarily a complaint, as it may be intentional, but it was always very obvious when something violent was about to take place. He seems to like making people particularly vulnerable before they're attacked; first, a man receiving a shave in a barber's chair. Then, a man urinating. And then, of course, a completely naked man in a sauna. The only thing missing was Janet Leigh taking a shower.

Anyway, those are my reasons for giving the film 3 out of 5 stars. It is very well-made, and at times, very enjoyable to watch. My feeling is that it wants to be too many things at once, and ultimately ends up being none of them.

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i like it better with the spoilers, but that's just me.

from what you describe the movie is a tease.

ie, they deliver an "eastern promise" but there doesn't really seem to be anything "eastern" but the accents and knowledge you're in russia.

i feel bad for viggo they didn't put more culture and back story in there. undoubtedly all his studying would have come in handy, but it just seems like they transplanted an american version of the mob into russia with accents and thought that made it the russian mob. i kinda felt the whole core of the movie was in the trailer. based on your review, it is.


HEY! i thought you stopped posting individual reviews to their own pages and were having them as threads, what's going on?
life without movies is like cereal without milk. possible, but disgusting. but not nearly as bad as cereal with water. don't lie. I know you've done it.

i feel bad for viggo they didn't put more culture and back story in there. undoubtedly all his studying would have come in handy, but it just seems like they transplanted an american version of the mob into russia with accents and thought that made it the russian mob. i kinda felt the whole core of the movie was in the trailer. based on your review, it is.
Yeah, Viggo's work here is really great, and it's sort of a shame he doesn't get the movie to himself.

HEY! i thought you stopped posting individual reviews to their own pages and were having them as threads, what's going on?
I hummed and hawed for awhile, then decided to have an "official" reviews area, but also use it to catalogue and highlight user reviews on the forums. Anyway, I'm pretty pleased with the results so far, but you know me; always tweaking.

Yoda, I haven't seen this, so I won't comment on your review. I will say that I'm a long-time Cronenberg fan who was disappointed by his last couple movies, waaay too normal for me. When I see a David Cronenberg movie, I want to see mad scientists who live in virtual reality worlds that are generated by squirming sacks of flesh that they plug into their synthetic anuses, James Woods making love to his suggestively throbbing TV set after watching bizarre mind control porn, things like that. That said, have you seen any of Cronenberg's earlier movies? The Fly and eXistenZ are probably the most accessible of his weirder films and if you haven't seen either, I would recommend them both.

Here's my filmography rating for Cronenberg. I'll Astrix once for his 'body horror' period that Lines is referring to, and 'a' for his adaptations.

Crash (a)
Videodrome *
The Fly (a) *
Dead Ringers (a) *
Naked Lunch (a) *
Shivers *
A History of Violence (a)
Scanners *
eXistenZ *
The Dead Zone (a)
Rabid *
The Brood *

Sat unseen on DVD shelf- Spider (a)

All bar Rabid and The Brood i would say are
thus possibly making him one of THE greatest directors. I would love to post a whole essay on him but this isn't the place.

Cool, other than A History of V and Scanners being higher than eXistenZ I think that's a pretty fair list. I guess mine would be like so:

Dead Ringers: See Peter Greenaway's A Zed & Two Noughts and then see this. These two films are pretty tightly connected in my mind.

eXistenZ: I kind of suspect this was Cronenberg's attempt to get back to Phil K. Dick after the disappointment of losing Total Recall. It even has a reference to Perky Pat. Anyway it's another one about various nested virtual realities, this time generated by amphibious flesh pods. Similar to Videodrome but I think it's a little more fun to watch

Videodrome: Really creepy movie. James Woods as executive of a porno channel who gets obsessed with a strange sadomasochistic show of the title, his reality and fantasies (revolving around Debbie Harry) bleeding into each other in all sorts of creepy ways, crazy conspiracies that he may or may not be imagining. Philip K. Dick stuff.

The Fly: this is the first Cronenberg movie that I saw and I still find it a really touching romance.

Shivers: just saw this recently. Surprisingly effective super low-budget scifi horror movie. A good example of imagination exceeding the limits of inexperience and funding.

Crash: I was a little weirded out by this, there was a lot of stuff that I just wasn't sure whether or not it was intended to be funny. Dialog like: "do you think the JFK assassination was a special kind of car crash?" that seems pretty Ballard. Still pretty interesting. One thing about Cronenberg is that no matter how much sex he puts into his movies everything that comes across as remotely erotic is always based on some weird and disgusting externality: insect typewriters, breathing video cassettes, twisted metal car wrecks here. The people themselves come across as completely unerotic and detached.

Naked Lunch: actually I don't remember this one too well and I haven't read the book either.

The Brood: Don't remember this all that well either. Just that I liked it and it's about a woman whose psychological demons manifest themselves in a murderous brood of deformed children or something.

Scanners: good fx, kind of ordinary story by his standards as I recall (none of the weird bending of reality of his best films).

Rabid: not that great, but I think it kind of helps if you know that the woman is supposed to have a fanged penis growing out of her armpit.

A History of Violence: I thought this was a good thriller, but not such a good Cronenberg movie. Any number of creative minds could have contrasted the worlds of family and gangsters as competently as he did here, this isn't where his real talent lies. Good acting, but that doesn't matter that much (see Shivers, for example, which somehow manages to be way creepier and more thought provoking without even a quarter of the level of professional talent involved).

Spider: another decent film, and you can tell that it's Cronenberg, but it just seems a little too watered down.

Crimes of the Future: guess we all have to start somewhere. It's unwatchable but at least it's unique and you can get a slight inkling that the mind behind it had good ideas, just not the means to turn them into a film yet.

The Dead Zone: can't comment. It's been too long. Saw it over a decade ago.

I'd rate Scanners higher mainly because of Micheal Ironside. eXistenZ for me was a great movie but i think Cronenberg is maturing as a director and it was almost a lapse to his earlier days but without any of the punch oir freedom to have the disturbed brilliance of Videodrome. The virtual realities were an interesting concept but i think he studied the idea far better in Videodrome and even the the drug induced paranoid fantasy worlds of Robocop in Naked Lunch. If anything, i'd say eXistenZ was watered down Cronenberg. The flesh controllers reminded me of the Clark Nova's and the assassinating the creators was also rather similar to Videodrome. I think one of the crucial factors running through Cronenberg's work is his handling of sexuality, be it the sado masochistic torture (Videodrome), insect sodomy (Naked Lunch) and romance (The Fly), the sibling sexual tension in Dead Ringers, the purely physical sex 'disease' in SHivers or the eroticism of finding new stimulation in Crash; eXistenZ lost these themes- i know that not all his films have them but i consider them an important aspect in his work.

I understand what you mean about A History of Violence seeming watered down but i think it was a bold move for Cronenberg, that was a great film at the same time keeping a lot of his elements- the rough sex on the stairs and the questioning of violence in a more direct accessible verisimilitude. Have you read the graphic novel? Because the ending of that as his childhood friend (the brother role, though here he's not the villain) being held for years in a warehouse being tortured and his a burnt dismembered lump when we find him towards the end, now that is pure Cronenbergial body horror, yet it's removed in the film, as is a deleted Mortensen shoots Ed Harris in a dream and Harris taunts him with a gaping chest wound afterwards. A History of Violence could have been a far more typical Cronenberg affair, and it maybe partially selling out (i'd hope not) but i think as i said prior, he's maturing as a director to making thought provoking films watched for their content and not points you mentioned wanting from a Cronenberg.

As for Naked Lunch, it's a very interesting film in terms of ownership. I've had trouble reading the whole Naked Lunch novel but i know it's the movie isn't a direct retelling, instead taking elements of Burrough's autobiography and elements of pure Cronenberg. It all works well, and i'd love to one day sit down and unravel exactly which bits are from where but aside from Videodrome i'd say it was the seminal Cronenberg. There's some wickedly disturbed moments and a true sense of being on a massive trip, yet retaining a degree of ambiguity and some disturbed sexuality. From what i know of moments that were from Burrough's, it's almost a heavenly match in two artists who's thoughts are mirrored through two different mediums.

As for Dead Zone, it's a solid film with some good performances from Walken and Martin Sheen (as a corrupt senator, i think) but it's probably the one early Cronenberg that i'd count out his filmography, even though IMDB had it highest rated (before A History of Violence). It's an early example of Cronenberg adapting a source, like he been doing since after his 'body horror' era, but not adding his personal touch to make them works of an auteur.

[i]The Brood[/i/] is definitely his weakest film, it's got a lot of ideas and some creepy moments but his inexperience directing and developing his ideas are distractingly evident. I'd only recommend if someone was wanting to watch his entire works.

Lines, you seem to attribute the bleeding realities to being hallmarks of Cronenberg but they're in what, eXistenZ and Videodrome (and Naked Lunch if you counted)? Personally i'd say his main preoccupation was with sex (and obviously perversions of the body), it's a far more prevailing idea perpetuated throughout his work, which is why i find A History of Violence a strong entry into his collection.

Have you read The Artist as Monster or Cronenberg on Cronenberg? The former has an extensive analysis of his work and the latter an interesting perspective on his creative process; i've not properly read either of them or Baudrilliard's writing on Crash or Shivers.

yeah, eXistenZ could have and should have been less timid about sex, you're right about that. I still really enjoyed the flesh pods and the references to aNalseX with lubricating and plugging those cords into their backs though, also it was a little more explicit (than Videodrome) about the shifting between realities and the cool idea about one synthetic reality conspiring against entities in other (higher or lower) levels of reality was a little clearer. I guess the difference I would draw between that and Videodrome was that in VD it felt a little more like the porno tape was a psychological infection while the virtual worlds in eXistenZ actually felt like they had a sinister agency or agenda. The anti-fake reality fake reality stuff. Maybe? I'd have to watch them both again to see how strong of a claim of difference like that I could be comfortable making. I've rewatched eXistenZ much more recently than VD so that could be something effecting my choices too, either way they're both top-level films IMO.

Um, about the bleeding realities theme vs. sexual perversions theme: does it make more sense if I say that I feel the two are connected. Cronenberg often shifts between multiple artificial realities but uses those really striking sexual metaphors as the primary wedge for moving between them.

You're right that it (the multiple realities theme)'s not so strong and not the same in all his films, but it is present in many of them, even in A History of Violence where the contrast in those two sex scenes (both very deliberately artificial in terms of pushing the fantasy role-playing/awkwardness into the foreground) is what really sets off the contrast between the happy family world and the darker daddy's a super-bad ass gangster world. Again, my problem with this film isn't that it wasn't done well, it's just, oh, it's all been done before. To cite the most obvious example in my mind, James Cameron did almost the exact same thing in True Lies (albeit with a very different tone and crappy actors). It was about as effective too, I thought. When I try to think of a Cameron movie (or just about any movie) that can compare remotely with most of the other movies in the Cronenberg list, it's much, much harder. With that in mind, much as I enjoyed H 'o' V, I just can't consider it a great success or a step in a positive direction.

Haven't read the History of Violence comic, but have read Cronenberg on Cronenberg. I borrowed it from a friend when I was in high school (this would have been the mid-nineties so unfortunately I don't really remember much of the book). As a side autobiographical note, Cronenberg may actually be the first movie director whose name I knew and would seek out at the video store, starting from when I was staying at my grandparents' house at the shore when I was about 14 and took The Fly out from the local public library. Good times.

I watched Eastern Promises last night and I'm rather disappointed! This just seemed a bit of a misstep. Granted it's got a genuine Cronenberg cadence and palette, the performances are solid and said glimpse of Russian mafia life is interesting. The only problem was figuring out the payoff so early in the film just took all the suspense out of it. I sat through the credits wondering if I was missing something, especially given the acclaim. Yoda's review however, was spot on. I actually wished we had seen less of Viggo Mortenson because he was so imposing at the onset. Too bad being a top-billed actor demands so much screen-time, because it's his character that fails and not his abilities. Sucks...I was looking forward to this one.

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I think one of the major reasons I gave it one more popcorn bucket than you, Yoda, was over just how impressed I was by Viggo Mortensen's work. The man was brilliant, frighteningly brilliant actually. That's probably why I didn't give too much consideration to the story, because I was too wrapped up in Viggo's acting skills.

Viggo is one of my absolute favorite actors and this movie is a perfect example of why I like him so much; he does just such a damn good job that it's spooky. I'll buy a ticket to a movie just to see him, even if all his on-screen time amounted to no more than 5 minutes. I certainly can't wait to see him on-screen again, his skills are well worth the price of admission.
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Finally saw it, sadly drifted off to nod a couple times but not for too long don't think. The plot was by far the weakest part and would have definitely preferred either Watts or Mortensen opposed to both to make a much more immersing and developed film. Was bit annoyed by Watt's British accent, since it wasn't a dialect just a standard British accent and was a bit jarring especially considering her Russian/London heritage. I really loved Cassell, perhaps more so than Mortensen and would really like to see them get Oscar nominations, and think Cronenberg deserves a lot of praise for making a very strong film despite weak script. Definitely going to see it again before it leaves, though perhaps more for the fact i fell asleep and doing dissertation on it.

(maybe will add extra half on repeat)

I really like the way Eastern Promises is filmed. It swept away half of the Genie Awards at the beginning of the month and I think it should have been nominated for an Academy Award for Editing.
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Viggo Mortensen is great and this role is a far greater test of his acting skills then Lord of The Rings. The editing of directing is great but the intense and quite harrowing nature of some section of the film means it is not for everyone.

the first time I saw it I was like "What the H*ll" but the second time I really enjoyed it.

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Viggo made the movie for me...he was unfreaking believable, and just the tense atmosphere throughout the whole movie...I'll admit though the story was definetly not the strongest.
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I was captivated with the film ... the acting and script was brilliant.
I enjoyed being taken for a ride into the underbelly of the Russian Mafia.

The plot wonderfully twisted and turned, the bath house fight scene was simply the most realistic that I have ever experienced. The body art and it's significance (apparently added due to Viggo researching the role) added to the mystique of a new world. All of this made it a thoughally thrilling movie experience.
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I watched this last night and found it a great film, the story was great and the twists and turns init was I thought well writen. I thought the performance of Viggo Mortenson was fantastic. I recently watched a history of violence and found this a much better film. Fair play this is definatly worth a look if you havent aleady see it.
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This wasn't my favorite of Cronenberg's, but I did enjoy it. Viggo's performance was quite good. I don't recall the film too well, so I think I need to re-watch it. But I do find myself a little irritated with the excessive publicity for the "nude fight scene".

I really did not care for some of the slightly cheesy scenes with the child. But altogether, I thought it was good.

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The "nude fight" was I thought very brutal, as when your wearing nothing your very venerable and he did seem to be that way. Just the cutting into his skin with the knives was very nasty. The whole scene was polished off with the bad guy having his head/neck slamed on to the knife, as if that wasnt enough he started to crawl away over bad guy 2 he then stabbed the guy in the eye. It is a very nasty fight but also very good.

Overall I really enjoyed this film.