There is something innately fascinating about the gangster film — the moral ambiguity, the wanton bloodshed, the black suits that look like they were carved out of onyx — that all filmmakers want to revel in and, ultimately, transcend. Canadian auteur David Cronenberg has based his entire career on elevating genre films to unexplored artistic heights. Cronenberg, at his best, is able to give his films a veneer of prestige while also delivering the grotesque goods. However, his new film “Eastern Promises” suffers from the very thing he has been able to previously subvert: respectability. This film is Cronenberg’s cakewalk into the gangster genre, but this time he isn’t able to really make it unique.
Anna (Naomi Watts), a London nurse, finds herself in hot water when a young, pregnant, homeless Russian immigrant is rushed to her care, hemorrhaging and about to give birth. The mother dies, and Anna finds herself growing attached to the newborn and the woman’s diary. She is determined to translate the diary and unravel the mystery behind the woman’s plight.
However, Anna does not realize what she is about to uncover. It has something to do with Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), one of the top bosses of the Russian Mafia; his apoplectic son Kirill (Vincent Cassel); and possibly their confidante and chauffeur, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). In trying to discover the simple truth, Anna is meddling with ever-moving forces she cannot possibly deal with, physically or mentally.
To reveal any more would be criminal, however, that doesn’t mean the film is unpredictable. Cronenberg, working from a script by Steve Knight, finds himself far more comfortable in the world of the Mafia than in the world of the unbelievably naive Anna. It is hard to be truly engaged by the film, simply because Anna’s motivations and actions are increasingly stupid and irrational. She is possibly the worst written character in any of Cronenberg’s films.
Nikolai is ultimately the character the audience gets to know the best, and he begins the film in a primal state. His bosses make him do all the dirty work, expunging their sins vicariously through him. And it is not until a dubious plot twist that Nikolai, like many of Cronenberg’s characters, gains his humanity.
In films such as “The Fly,” “Videodrome” and “Naked Lunch,” Cronenberg uses the sexual promiscuity and the wariness of technological progress to dig beneath the surface of the characters. His characters always began the film as incomplete and being uncomfortable in their physical forms. As the stories progress, characters’ personalities tend to manifest themselves through outward appearances, allowing the characters to fully mature. The characters devolve into much more primal versions of themselves. In this film, Cronenberg is not able to really make Nikolai evocative because we are given no context as to who he really was before the mob.
“I live in the zone all the time,” Nikolai said at one point. The best of Cronenberg’s films also live in the “zone,” the place in which innocents and monsters, sex and death, sex and life, are all intermingled to create a world so uncomfortable that it suffocates and numbs you. “Eastern Promises” is slick and never dull, but compared to Cronenberg’s other work, it is wholly unremarkable. It is a step backward from his last film, the extraordinary “A History of Violence,” in which the audience is implicated in the violence on screen, exposing the hypocrisy of American justice through the primal actions of the characters. Here, the violence and gallows humor is all meant to be just entertaining. Cronenberg needs to think a little bit more about transcending the genre basics.
“Eastern Promises” was written by Steven Knight and directed by David Cronenberg.
“Eastern Promises” received 2.5 out of 4 stars