David Cronenberg has never been afraid to show his audience the worst of things in his films and in his newest human drama “Eastern Promises” (which the studios have chosen to call a “thriller”, huh?) he delivers again. We not only get to see a throat cut, but literally sawed into, by the nervous hands of a first time killer. It’s horrific to watch, yet you can’t turn away. And this murder sets into motion a storyline that parallels and eventually ties together with a midwife whose left with an unnamed baby and diary in Russian when the Mother dies during child birth. Taking care of the child is Anna, played almost to perfect normalness by Naomi Watts. The only reason why we don’t quite buy her as being so normal is because we already know she’s such an incredible actress and here she just feels like Naomi Watts, but at least she’s not gushing tears. She sets out to translate the diary in hopes to find out who the remaining family is, which brings her into the world of the Russian Mafia…in London. Too close in fact. What the Russian mafia has to do with the baby, I’ll leave it for you to watch the film, but three of those Russians are played by Armen Mueller-Stahl as the patriarch who has the job of holding the emotional weight of the first half of the film together with his eyes alone. His character has become so comfortable with his cruelty, he doesn’t realize it and therefore has no reason to hide his true intentions along with the smile of kindness he gives to Anna. He’s all evil. Then Vincent Casselle who no holds barred plays the insecure loose canon, morally unaware son of Stahl and the driver he seems to have a man-crush on played with calm confidence by Viggo Mortenson. Mortenson is one of those fine actors that can say more with his body language than most can with their dialogue. Unfortunately, while these characters do become interesting after a time, the story itself took awhile to grab my attention.
I wanted to really like this film, but as I was watching it I got the feeling that it didn’t really want to be liked. It just wanted to be good. And it is really good. Because of this for the first half of the film I was very aware that I was watching a very good film that had the Russian mafia in it. I don’t care if the characters are likable or not, so long as they’re interesting. What I do hate is when a story just isn’t interesting, or is easy to figure out. While Cronenberg’s simple approach to the story in “History of Violence” seemed to delve immediately into the minds of killers , “Eastern Promises” leaves you lingering on the surface of the story, which means the characters live there to. The tattoos that litter the mafias’ bodies are intriguing, but we never feel the weight of what they mean to the characters. They are supposed to tell stories, but sit on their skin like paintings until they are needed for a clever, albeit predictable, story twist. It was surprising to me that about half way through, the film became as involving as it did, though it didn’t help me from predicating the end. We learn some facts about the Russian Mafia, but we never get a clear sense of how they work or that we’re being included in things that normal people shouldn’t see. There’s talk about how terrible they are, but when it comes down to it they do everything expected of them. Even the Mortenson character, while being played off as a mystery character, was too easy for me to get a bead on.
Most of this has to do with story. The depth just isn’t in the script. What saves it is Cronenberg’s midas touch. He stages everything with a calm graphic novel style approach. Letting beautifully framed shots linger, he and Peter Suschitzky, the DP whose worked with him on several other films, including “History”, give us a beautiful film to look at. Again, my only problem was that we never get a good feeling for the settings we’re in. We see them, but they never feel alive. That is until the climatic scene in a bath house, in which you not only feel the environment but cringe and shutter as things go down. What things, other reviewers might tell you, but I’ll refrain, only that it’s one of the finest moments in the film. But again, in the end, we’re left with an image that we aren’t sure how to feel about. I knew the character we see is empty because of the life he’s chosen, but that doesn’t mean the audience should feel that way too.
I’m certain this film may grow on me over time (tell me that’s not commitment phobic) but for now it’s going to remain a film that’s just short of great.