Eastern Promises (Movie Review 2007)
She’s never seen any of the Lord of the Rings movies, but my wife has a thing for Viggo Mortensen. A couple weeks ago, she tricked me into seeing Eastern Promises by telling me that she’d heard a review on the radio about a new movie that had a very explicit love scene between Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts. “You like Naomi Watts, don’t you?” she asked.
“Only because she looks like you dear,” I tell her.
“She looks nothing like me,” she protests, but she says it with a little bit of a smile.
“Yes Dear,” I say, “You’re completely right, you actually look more like Julianne Hough.”
“You look exactly like Viggo dear.”
“Do you think I look more like the Viggo in Walk on the Moon or the Viggo in History of Violence?”
“That depends. Would you rather have me be Diane Lane or Maria Bello?”
Anyway, it was a nice day on Sunday, our daughter was at work at the ice cream parlor, it had been something like eighteen months since my wife and I had seen a movie in a theater together alone, so all that contributed to our walking down to our local movie theater. Well, it was all that and the prospect of seeing Naomi Watts make like Maria Bello in History of Violence which also paired Viggo with Canadian director, David Cronenberg (Dead Ringers, the Fly, Rabid).
We stopped at the ice cream parlor to say “Hi” to our child and get ice cream at a discount. I was standing in front of the glass that separates customers from hundreds of thousands of calories worth of butter fat when a woman stepped in front of me. I moved over about three feet so I could look over at least half the selection, the woman moves her body so I can’t see. She seemed to be afraid that I’d get served first.
Naturally, we get to the nearly empty theater before any other customers. Our local theater has 8 screens, but the rooms for most of them are smaller than most people’s living rooms. With the rise of HDTV, the screens may be smaller than my friend Richard’s new state of the art home theater. As the first two people there, we find a place strategically located in the middle of the thirty seats there. Two women come in and promptly sit all of two seats away from us. Why do people do this? I take a closer look at the woman on our right. Naturally, it’s the lady from the ice cream parlor who sits there hunched over in her overcoat. I’m tempted to ask her what flavor she wound up getting, but then think better of it since she can still plop right in front of us.
Anyway, I spent the first thirty minutes of the movie trying to figure out how there’s going to be any kind of hot sex scene between Viggo and Naomi Watts. I don’t consider this a spoiler. If you have any thoughts of going to see Eastern Promises in the hopes that you will see Naomi Watts naked in a bed with Viggo Mortensen, there is no such scene. If, however, you want to see a good gangster movie that includes parts of Viggo you’ve never seen before, I recommend this one.
Like David Lynch, Cronenberg has a knack for extending the genre movie into the artistic. With horror movies, he found ways to make “body” horror both scary and mesmerizing at the same time. I still remember the scene of Jeff Goldblum throwing up his food and eating it like a fly or Jeremy Irons showing Jeremy Irons his new tools for working on the female parts of deformed women. In History of Violence, he took the “revenge” movie last explored really well by Sam Peckinpah and choreographed it in a way that made the violence look quirkily beautiful. In particular, there was the odd grace of Viggo Mortensen’s character transforming into a kind of Charlie Parker of the gang hit in the movie’s early pivot scene and his movie son’s discovery that he’s made of the same stuff that Cronenberg turned into a moment that managed to be disconcerting and resassuring all at once. The hard thing about Eastern Promises is that Cronenberg promises to take the gangster movie into rarified but still well marked territory. Unlike horror and revenge movies, the gangster movie gone artsy’s been done a few times. Cronenberg’s no longer trying to leapfrog Phil Kaufman’s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, we’re talking film noir, Coppola, Scorcese, and the Sopranos.
Like jazz, there’s something quintessentially American about the gangster movie, a tradition that starts before Edward G. Robinson and culminates with the first two parts of the Godfather trilogy. Perhaps the most striking thing that Cronenberg does is to shift the Gangster genre out of America. It’s set in a part of London that feels more Russian than English. The movie itself drops in a number of clues about the emerging multicultural London including the fact that Watts’s former boyfriend was black. He also seems to purposely cast non-American actors. Watts is Australian. Armin Mueller-Stahl (Shine, the Music Box, Avalon, Colonel Redl) is East German. Vincent Cassell (Elizabeth and Read My Lips) is French. Mortensen is both American and Danish, with a large part of his formative years spent in Denmark. Almost perversely, Cronenberg has them all play some variation on Russians exiled to London.
The movie itself drops a Hitchcock plot, innocent well meaning person’s own best traits put her right in the path of the devil, into a world thick with atmosphere. A good half of the scenes are set in a sumptuous Russian restaurant, the front for Armin Mueller-Stahl’s wide ranging gangster enterprise, a place where Lenin’s revolution never seemed to have happened. Cronenberg drops an assortment of gangster and movie conventions around this. Theres’s the hit in the Barber shop a la Moe Green, the body drop in the Thames from Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, the moment where a character shows his charm by playing the violin, a variation on Eisenstein’s baby carriage in the midst of mayhem, bits of Rosemary’s Baby, and a number of takes from Donnie Brasco including a “butcher shop” scene.
(minor spoiler warning)
The Donnie Brasco thing is no accident. A good part of Eastern Promises consists of a glimpse into the world of the double agent, a theme that Scorcese recently explored in The Departed which was a near frame by frame remake of the Hong Kong movie, Internal Affairs. Mortensen is excellent in the role. He’s always made great use of his mournful yet magisterial face. This time though, he manages to convey a sense of inner complexity that I haven’t necessarily seen in other movies. There’s a scene with Watts in which she confronts him about the very real horrors of his cohorts and he’s forced to improvise a line about “Slaves being slaves” in which you really feel the pain of his having to stay in role as henchman to the devil. He also uses just a few strokes to maximal effect, Cronenberg is not a big dialogue guy, to bring out a feeling of how far he’s gone to get this far inside including a suggestion of bisxexuality.
There is a problem though. Donnie Brasco, the Departed, and Good Fellas kept the focus on the decent insider trying to make his way in a world ruled by an inverted morality. Cronenberg chooses to jump back and forth to Watts’s innocent bystander plot and tell it from her perspective. While it’s done well, Eastern Promises frequently feels like two movies. As Cronenberg tries to wrap the paired stories up, he falls short and as a result crosses the line from homage to pastiche. Instead of coming together, the two plot lines just whimper out with large unexplained chunks and a final shot of Mortensen stolen straight from Godfather One. Watts (I Heart Huckabees, 21 Grams,the Painted Veil, the Ring) isn’t left with much to do but to look either pained or righteous at various times.
That said, I hasten to point out that Eastern Promises may not make it as a gangster movie with artistic pretensions, but it still works as a gangster movie. Cronenberg builds the sense of menace expertly throughout the movie. Throat slashings alternate with cream cakes. Cherubic looking little girls crosscut with scenes of Russian women sold into white slavery. After several scenes of loving preparation of the richest imaginable Russian cuisine, the viewer gets reminded that it’s being made by people who trade twelve year old girls for truckloads of white wine. The violence in the movie is constant and graphic yet Cronenberg makes a point of having no weapon in his movie more lethal than a linoleum knife. Viggo’s bathhouse fight scene is choreographed as well as any fight scene I’ve seen at least since the initial scene in well, History of Violence. Even if he doesn’t quite transcend the genre, Cronenberg remains a terrifically vital filmmaker. In particular, I don’t think any director has done more to make the body a special effect in his movies. In this one, Cronenberg gets off on Russian gangster tattoos and there’s a scene with Mortensen that’s in parts erotic, scary, and baroque.
In any case, I’d recommend Eastern Promises for Viggo, Peter Suschitzky’s thickly claustrophobic camera work, Muller-Stahl’s turn as a villain with old world values, Polish Director Jerzy Skolimowski as Watt’s coarse but also shrewd uncle, and a tight but imperfect script that artfully implies more than it actually says. Just don’t think of it as a date movie where you’re going to get inspired to go home and make out afterwards. I still can’t believe she tricked me like that. In the meantime, my wife keeps showing up with a razor while I’m in the shower.