As the trailer for Promises promises, a plethora of fighting, killing, blood, sweat and tears will be presented to you. Not the case. What iconic director Cronenberg has crafted is a controlled movie with explosive elements. It’s filled with excellent storytelling, witty dialogue, gripping acting and yes, a few beautiful bursts of Cronenberg-ian violence.
After a young woman collapses in a London drug store, she is brought to the emergency room where she dies giving birth to a girl. Anna, a midwife taking care of her, finds the girl’s diary and through her Russian uncle, begins to have it translated. Her cranky uncle will only go so far, declaring that the secrets of the dead should stay buried. Determined to get answers, Anna is led to a Russian restaurant. Once she is invited in, her whole world is spun.
Anna asks Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the owner of the restaurant, to translate the diary for her. But soon, she is in way over her head. Semyon is the head of the Vory V Zakone family, a sect of the Russian mob. Anna is soon introduced to Seymon’s depraved son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and his loyal bodyguard Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). The film is off and running as Anna discovers that the dead girl was part of a sex trafficking ring run by Semyon and she fears for her life of her family and the life of the still-unclaimed baby in her ward.
As he did with his brillant History of Violence, Cronenberg creates a story about seemingly average people put to extreme circumstances. He isn’t trying to post a vast narrative on the birth of the Russian mob, or Nikolai’s upbringing through brutal, Russian prisons, acquiring dozens of tattoos that tell his life story. No flashbacks here. Cronenberg simply starts a story where he feels necessary, in this case with the birth of a child, and ends it when he feels appropriate.
Much like Violence, the gruesome scenes in Promises are presented in a realistic manner. No slow motion, domineering musical score, or heavy amounts of blood. Cronenberg is interested in the real ways that the Vory dispose of a body, with no fingers in tact. If that’s how it’s done, then that’s how it’s going to be shown. Cronenberg uses his violence as a tool. He gives you just enough to keep you an edge.
Violence contained the best screen acting performances of 2005. Mortensen, Maria Bello and a devilishly wonderfully William Hurt, all gave their career bests. Promises maintains that same trait. Cronenberg is an actor’s director, he gives them the freedom to explore these dark, complicated characters, while keeping them reserved.
Mortensen, in a raw, courageous performance, excels past his Tom Stall from Violence. He gives the violent Nikolai a heart. His firm posture, jet-black hair, thin cheekbones and smooth mannerisms are completely believable. You’ll think Mortensen actually speaks Russian. Try to listen for a slip-up in his flawless accent, you won’t catch one.
In her best performance since 21 Grams, the always engrossing Watts is riveting. As a woman battling her own regrets and misfortunes Watts’ face is often wonderfully dwelled with fear. But she remains strong willed and exquisitely bold while going toe to toe with some remarkably evil people.
You may remember Cassel from Ocean’s 12 as the smartass, sneaky Frenchman. As Kirill, Cassel is a revelation. He dives deep into a haunted young man, longing to be accepted by his father, Kirill is filled with jealousy and rage. Those are daddy’s eyes in there, rooted with deep seeds of evil.
A supporting actor nominee for Shine, expect Mueller-Stahl to snag another nomination as the alluringly horrific Seymon. When he opens his restaurant door for Anna, the first time we see his face I was instantly reminded of Nicholson in A Few Good Men. Right away, you fear him. He hasn’t spoken a word, but you know that this guy is dangerous.
I usually find that sex scenes distract from a film’s plot, but Cronenberg’s sex scenes are almost always essential. As he did with Violence and the potently erotic Crash, Cronenberg uses sex as character development. You won’t fully know two of the character until one of them makes the other have sex with a drugged up young girl.
The naked fighting scene has already become “the scene” of the season. Like the do-or-die standoffs in Violence, this fight forces Nikolai to use the methods that got him through prison, fighting with what you can, innocent bystanders included and never assuming someone is down for good. Female admirers of Mortensen’s will flock to rent the DVD to catch an All the Right Moves-perfect-pause-moment of his… livelihood.
Eastern Promises is a wonderfully paced, subtle film. There is a great little surprise in here somewhere. Don’t worry, I’ll never tell. Just listen. Listen to the clever words and your jaw will drop. People looking for a Russian Departed should head elsewhere, what you’re going to get is a unique story with heavy, reliable acting and an occasional slit throat… or two.
Leaving the theatre a young man walking behind me said, talking into his cell phone, “Hey man, you wanna know what movie NOT to see? Eastern Promises. Totally lame.” Having just won top honors at the Toronto Film Festival, I smiled at the fact that he couldn’t be more wrong. But hey, how can I blame him? He probably only goes to a few movies a year, saw the advertisements for Eastern Promises and said, “Oh, that’s the guy from those Lord of the Rings movies, I liked those.” A