Eastern Promises DVD: Review By Dodd

An unsettling thriller that shouldn't be missed.
  • Feature
  • Extras
  • Replay Value
An unsettling thriller that shouldn't be missed.
The special features lack a commentary track from David Cronenberg.
David Cronenberg is a filmmaker that has changed his palette throughout his career. There is certainly a distinction between the slimy, bodily horror of his 1983 classic Videodrome, and the 2005 rural-set gangster thriller A History of Violence. The Canadian auteur's works have matured over the years. This is not to say that there is anything embarrassingly immature about Jeff Goldblum vomiting acid in The Fly (1986), or a James Woods ripping a videocassette from his own stomach in the aforementioned Videodrome. But like any horror filmmaker, he was clearly once having fun with the gleeful gore of horror as a supplement to his satirical subtexts about family and a consumptive pop culture. In his most recent projects, Cronenberg has focused his energy on more suspenseful and psychological fare minus the oozy monsters. However, he has amazingly kept intact his trademark signatures of perversion and over-the-top violence. The most striking example is A History of Violence, in which the director utilizes gut-wrenchingly, graphic scenes to ironically comment on the state of violence. This tactic worked for the filmmaker so much that he plays upon similar techniques in the recent thriller, Eastern Promises.

Like A History of Violence, Eastern Promises delivers a sense of dread and horror that is instantly relatable because its monsters are the human beings we fear in real life on a regular basis. In this case, scary gangsters are the intimidating predators, and Violence star Viggo Mortensen collaborates with the director once more as one of these shady characters. Mortensen stars as Nikolai, a Russian chauffer and errand-runner for London restaurant entrepreneur Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). While Semyon seems like a nice enough old man who makes delectable bowls of borsht, it becomes evident that he cuts more than just food in his line of work. Along with his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel), Semyon runs a Russian crime ring and will stop at nothing to maintain power, even if this means slitting the throats of rats who know too much.

Just when it becomes unmistakably clear that these Russian mobsters are not to be provoked, innocent midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) stumbles upon the diary of a 14-year-old Russian girl who dies in childbirth. Anna is left with an orphaned infant in her arms and a desperate need to find the baby's familial origins. Certain clues lead her to Semyon's restaurant. Anna expresses a desire to translate the diary, but Semyon is clearly skeptical of the secrets locked within the handwritten pages. What begins as a mission of kindheartedness plunges Anna into a dark underground where corruption and murder are merely mundane occurrences.

When summarizing a movie, it is typically not difficult to convey a basic plot outline to give readers an idea of what to expect. However, there is much I have selectively omitted from this particular synopsis. In Roger Ebert's review for the film, the critic indicates that Eastern Promises is a film that contains much more depth than what is presented in the theatrical trailer. After seeing the film for myself, I found Ebert's observations to be undeniably dead on. While walking into the theater expecting a basic gangster tale that follows the Godfather template, I became immersed in Cronenberg's brilliant world of brutality and suspense. This is a world that showed me traumatizing and terrible things, yet had me begging for more just like a masochistic fetishist one would expect to find in a Cronenberg picture. As Anna makes discoveries in her quest for answers, she comes across unspeakable things that she does not expect to find. The moviegoing experience of vicariously making these discoveries through Anna is such an intense ride, that I would rather not disclose more than I have to about the film's complex, yet subtle, plot twists and character studies.

Naomi Watts, who has not disappointed since her breakthrough performance in Mulholland Drive, encompasses the normalcy of Anna with her subtle performance. Such subtlety is the perfect anecdote for her scenery-chewing co-stars. Viggo Mortensen is gradually proving himself to be one of the greatest actors working today since breaking away from the LOTR trilogy. As Russian muscle man, Nikolai, the beloved protagonist has never been creepier. Whether he is putting a cigarette out on his tongue without flinching, or simply offering Anna a ride home as an act of kindness, Mortensen is the type of mysterious monster that we pray we do not have to accidentally encounter on a normal day. The actor does not accomplish this by speaking in a thick Russian accent, but by actually becoming Nikolai. He is not trying to be intimidating; he is intimidating. Screen veteran Armin-Mueller Stahl is also commendable as a Russian crime honcho who can be a sweet grandfather figure one moment, and an aggressive bruiser the next. Vincent Cassell is also notable as the foolish and perverse Kirill. After a string of playing snaky characters in Ocean's 12 and Derailed, the French actor seems right at home.

Of course the biggest star here is David Cronenberg. While he may not have written the story, he certainly knows how to skillfully tell it. Those not familiar with his prior horror track record will acknowledge this as a solid and classy thriller. However, those familiar with Cronenberg's track record can expect his signature bursts of graphic violence and his usual array of creepy characters. One of these most memorable moments is a fight scene in a steam room that goes way beyond the standard kicks and punches found in Hollywood fare. Let's just say that blades are involved.
The DVD contains two featurettes that are not so much about the filmmaking aspect, but more about the historical parallels between the material and real life.

Secrets and Stories

This is 10 minutes long and covers the details of the real life Russian mob. It is the perfect opportunity for the filmmakers and real life experts on the subject to clarify what in the film is really true. The fascinating thing is that much of the film does reflect the Russian mob life in London.

Marked for Life

The tattoos on Viggo's body play a large role in defining the characters and the turns that they take. Therefore, director David Cronenberg finds it fitting to sit down for five minutes and discuss the meaning of the tattoos. To add accuracy, an actual Russian tattooist contributes his know-how.
Widescreen. The film is grim in the foggy streets of London, and the subject matter certainly does not add illumination. Cronenberg's filmmaking does not hold back on capturing horrific imagery or raw human emotion.
5.1 Dolby. The most memorable sound aspect has to be the score of classical Russian music that adds authenticity to the presence of these intimidating figures form the Russian mob.
The film comes in a standard DVD case. The front cover is a sampling of the original poster art along with other screenshots of the film.
Eastern Promises is hands down one of the best films from 2007. David Cronenberg proves himself as one of the most masterful filmmakers working today. By creating a first-rate suspense thriller interlaced with moments of bizarre violence, he proves that he can still have his cake and eat it too. I would regard the man as a horror auteur, but I would also recognize him as a filmmaker who can flawlessly craft drama. Eastern Promises will take you to a terrible world of crime and punishment, and will strangely have you wanting more.

Questions? Comments? Just want to talk movies? Drop me a line at dodd@movieweb.com

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Comments (2)

  1. Shelley

    Good review. I found this movie to be somewhat boring, but good.

    6 years agoby @shelleyFlag

  2. 313td

    nice review

    6 years agoby @313tdFlag