Background: David Cronenberg's last film, A History of Violence, was gripping - an intriguing story and plenty of suspense. And violence, oh the violence. Indeed, he displays a catalog of violence that was way too brutal for me to watch - when I couldn't avoid it. Cronenberg teams up again with Viggo Mortenson (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) for Eastern Promises, this time with Naomi Watts (King Kong,The Painted Veil) as the blond love interest. (One interesting note - Watts's next role is in the wildly violent Funny Games.) Both stars prepared intensely for their roles, Watts (pregnant while filming) as a midwife and Mortenson as a Russian gangster, for which he actually spent weeks alone all over Russia. I didn't know much about the story beforehand, but I did mention to the friends I saw it with that it would surely have some hyperviolent scenes. Wow, was that an understatement. A new area of my mind has been scarred, right next to the spot still suffering from A History of Violence.
Synopsis: Midwife Anna (Watts) finds a diary in the belongings of a young Russian girl named Tatiana who suspiciously dies from labor complications. The diary is in Russian. Conveniently, Anna's uncle is Russian and also happens to live with her. With amazing naivete, Anna follows the diary's link to a restaurant conspicuously serving as the franchise office of the local Russian organized crime family, or vory v zakone. The more warnings she is given to let well enough alone, and the more sordid details she learns from her uncle's translation, the more determined she is to learn of Tatiana's background so her surviving infant can be sent home. In the meantime, Nikolai (Mortenson) is the family's driver and boss-in-waiting, hoping to get "made" and earn his "stars." He quietly obeys the orders given him by current boss Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his incompetent son Kirill (Vincent Cassel), but something tells you Nikolai is more than just a puckered face. We soon learn he is an undercover lawman with a crush on Anna. All of these details emerge amid wickedly violent scenes, and Nikolai is forced to decide between his profession and love life as he rises in the ranks of the vory v zakone.
+ The production design - rainy, noir London and cozy Russian feasts, just like I remember from the old country.
+ Vincent Cassel's disgusting performance - the quintessential impulsive heir, the movie would have suffered without him.
+ The cinematography - there is something about the way Cronenberg frames shots that set them apart from everyone else.
+ The musical score.
+ Learning about the vory v zakone.
- Naomi Watts - she toned down her trademark crying and shrieking, but it was still more than enough.
- Armin Mueller-Stahl's accent - look, the guy is German, he's always going to be German, and trying to make him sound like he is anything other than German is ridiculous.
- The totally unnecessary diary entry narrations.
- The extremely graphic violence, of course.
Writing - 9
Acting - 9
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 5
Significance - 4
Total: 44/50= 88% = B+
Last Word: For me, this was all about the violence. The story is somewhat interesting, but the brutality was a major distraction for me. If you can look past that, you'll probably love Eastern Promises. It's a well-made, taut film with viciously evil characters and a clear hero to root for, but you're left wondering who really had the best motives. Never having seen The Sopranos (yes, I'm serious), I don't know how Eastern Promises compares to popular crime family dramas, but fans of the show will likely fill theaters to see this. Just expect the violence to be as bad as I'm describing it. Maybe you'll shrug your shoulders and laugh (some people did), or maybe you'll really be affected by it, like I was. I guess I just see it as real - people are actually killed in those ways, and I don't need to see it to know that. My imagination usually does just fine given the chance, but Cronenberg leaves no opportunity here.