Friday, October 19, 2007

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.

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At 10/20/2007 08:38:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting review. I hope you weren't too disappointed that there was no sex scene between Anna and Nikolai! I'm not sure why you're worried that your wife is showing up with a razor (maybe she just wants to shave your chest in preparation for having some tattoos applied). Now if she begins wielding a particularly ugly knife with a curved blade, you should start to worry....

I found this portion particularly interesting:
"... 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."

I haven't really noticed any other reviewer commenting on the full nature of Nikolai's relationship with Kirill. Personally, I wondered just how far that relationship went -- clearly, Nikolai uses the attraction to manipulate Kirill, but he also seems to have genuine compassion for Kirill, in spite of his excesses and other shortcomings. If they haven't already acted on any of Kirill's feelings (and I think that they have not gone beyond "flirting" at that point), the ending left it questionable regarding what might be required in the future (which makes Nikolai's position even more poignant, since he is clearly and genuinely drawn to Anna). I found Nikolai's scene with Kirill at the end to be extremely powerful, intimate, and moving; I wondered from second to second what Nikolai was actually going to do... for me, it was one of the best parts of the film.

Incidentally, it was interesting to see the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers mentioned in this article -- it's a favorite of mine, and thus I have to note that it was directed by Phil Kaufman, not Stanley Kaufman....

At 10/20/2007 08:55:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Red Minerva,
thanks for catching the Phil Kaufman mistake, I've made the change. There was a film critic named Stanley from around the same time and I've always interchanged their names.

I agree about that scene with Mortensen and Cassell at the end. There was a genuine tenderness there that hinted that Nikolai was at least drawing on the attraction to get inside the family. I also wondered about the role that played in the father sending Nikolai off to the baths. The script I thought did well to leave both ambiguous.

In any case, thanks for taking time to read the review so carefully and for your very thoughtful comments.

At 10/20/2007 10:49:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I thought it was really interesting that Semyon set up Nikolai in Kirill's place at the baths. Up to that point, Semyon had appeared to favor Nikolai over Kirill in terms of the family business. But despite his obvious disdain for his own son, Semyon apparently still honors family ties above all else. I think he was also solving another problem by taking this action: Kirill's unacceptable attraction to Nikolai. If Nikolai is dead, the problem goes away -- at least this appears to be Semyon's (unstated) thinking, however flawed.

I love this film, as you can probably tell, and thought that Viggo Mortensen's performance was nothing short of extraordinary. His teaming with David Cronenberg has resulted in two magnificent films, with the hope of more to come. I only wish that the American public had the sense to embrace these films in the way they deserve.

Thanks for your review; I really enjoyed it. This is the first time I've ever been drawn to respond to an online review and actually seen it through!

(And thanks to your wife for her clever plan!)

At 10/21/2007 07:04:00 AM, Blogger Elizabeth McQuern said...

It's funny, I've always pictured you as looking exactly like Viggo Mortensen, had his ancestors been from a totally different continent. :)

At 10/21/2007 10:18:00 AM, Blogger Martin Heavisides said...

I look exactly like Viggo Mortenson too, except for my body build and facial features. The only thing that nagged at me a little was that Nikolai became the hero of the piece at the point in the story where he's revealed as a member of the Russian secret police. There may well be noble agents working for that esteemed body, but they'd have a harder time justifying their actions than he does. He can read a newspaper; he knows colleagues in his service are employed full time as national and international hit men.

At 10/21/2007 01:01:00 PM, Blogger benny06 said...

I thought my spouse would like to see this film. And he probably will. Thanks for the review, CL.

At 10/22/2007 09:47:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Red Minerva,
I agree with you about the father's possible motives. There was a moment when Muller-Stahl asks Mortensen "Where did you find this out about my son?" and there was one of these stare downs where you're not quite sure what's going through Muller-Stahl's mind.
fwiw, It's always nice to know that someone read any of my posts carefully.

Of course, all our ancestors come from one place :}.

Did they say he was a Russian agent? It wasn't completely clear to me. Like many movies, there are details that are probably not analyzed too thoroughly.

Your spouse and I seem to have similar takes on things....Must be the bike riding...

At 10/22/2007 05:58:00 PM, Blogger BeckEye said...

I know several women who have crushes on Viggo. I don't get it. But a lot of people don't get my love for John Travolta.

Still, I've never seen Travolta wear such a horrific shirt!

At 10/22/2007 08:37:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, I read your review from beginning to end: very interesting. I particularly liked the witty repartee with which you introduced the review-- something like a scene from Tracy & Hepburn :-)

And your review made me go over what I remember from the film. Now I think you're right: EASTERN PROMISES was really two movies. But I think if Naomi Watt's character had not been there for the viewer to feel protective toward (and wondering what is going to happen to her is, I think a major factor in maintaining the film's tension), the movie wouldn't have been as involving. In fact, it would have been totally cold and depressing.

You're right about the last image of Viggo: so totally GODFATHER!

Thanks for a very enjoyable piece.

At 10/23/2007 09:44:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Yes, that is one weird looking shirt on Viggo. The photo came from the wikipedia and appeared to be public domain. John Travolta? Are we talking Tony Manero and Grease Travolta or is this post-Vincent Vega Travolta or both?

I still find it strange that we both saw the movie on the same weekend and wrote a review.
I would agree that the Naomi Watts plot does inform the story. My quarrel with it was more that the two stories ultimately didn't resonate with one another I suspect because they left so much of Viggo's past and current motives to the imagination.

I do think that Cronenberg crossed the line into pastiche instead of homage. Even the tatoo stuff was something of a pull from the Robert Mitchum movie Yakuza, though that was Japanese instead of Russian gangsters.

At 10/23/2007 12:42:00 PM, Blogger Dale said...

I'm looking forward to seeing the film and thanks for such a great review Chancelucky. I enjoy Viggo, Naomi sometimes, David and Armin. I hope your wife doesn't go too gangsta on you.

At 10/23/2007 02:18:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Thanks Dale. My favorite Naomi Watts remains I Heart Huckabees. I'm still refusing to let my wife put the tatoos over my heart, but you never know.

At 10/23/2007 03:12:00 PM, Blogger Cup said...

Dying to see this movie! I have a Viggo jones myself.

At 10/23/2007 03:50:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

What is it with women and Viggo? I look forward to hearing what you think of the movie, but it sounds like you're at concerts most nights :}.

At 10/26/2007 04:37:00 PM, Blogger benny06 said...

CL, I think you and my spouse have hobbies in common, but trust me, your political views are closer to mine than his. His best friend is like that too, whereby politically we are more aligned, but they both love the "ride".

They went to see "Into the Wild" last night, and liked it.

At 10/27/2007 09:58:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

one of the interesting things about making friends "online" is that you have no idea who or what the people you exchange messages with are like in real life. I suppose that's similar to Eastern Promises in its own way.

Maybe one of these days, I'll find myself at the University of Illinois.

At 10/28/2007 11:19:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's Viggo's use of stillness that captivates women. And the fact that he is confident enough of his masculinity to be an outspoken protester against actual violence. Unlike the snakehearted Iraq-then-Iran war lunatics.

(It is a dreadful crime that movies are even viewable on a tv screen. A movie in the theater is an utterly different experience. As NLP would suggest. How do you diminish horrid past experiences or encounters in your own life? Shrink them down in recalled size. Ipso facto, movies seen on a small screen can never have the impact of movies on a big screen.)

At 10/28/2007 11:29:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Mr. Pogblog,
Here I thought it was the tatoos.

With many movies, being on th big screen makes a huge difference. Of course, with all these mini-multiplex movie theaters and home screens and sound systems getting so sophisticated the gap is shrinking.

The other big thing about the theater is that it's a much more social experience, something that's not necessarily good all the time, but it's very different.

When I worked for the movie maker guy, they used to have regular showings of not yet premiered movies in their private theater. That was more or less the best of both worlds. It didn't make bad movies any better though.


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