Written by: Steve Knight
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl
Regardless of duty and accomplishments, some cultures value blood relation more than anything else. It allows for heinous behavior to be excused and the means of separation to get quite messy. Eastern Promises peels back the curtain of a niche corner of organized crime where the more gets uncovered, the less you want to see.
After tending to a young pregnant girl who dies giving birth, Anna Ivanova (Naomi Watts) seeks answers of who can care for this baby. This leads her to a vory v zakone leader Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Meanwhile, a driver for this crime syndicate, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) carries out his tasks, which goes beyond the typical duties of a chauffeur.
Taking place in London but a very Russian film overall, Eastern Promises vows to provide plenty of violence and show the true depravity within these Russian organized crime syndicates. Presenting as homely on the outside but treacherous behind the scenes, the appearance of Semyon shows two distinctive looks with Anna caught right in the middle of it all. After caring for the 14-year-old Anna wants to ensure the child does not get stuck in the foster care system, which prompts her to continue this chase but things get murkier as she learns more about what happened to this girl. This storyline runs parallel with Nikolai, who does all of the dirty work for Semyon and his family while not receiving tons of respect in the process. The men in this syndicate believe in the power of their hierarchy, with tattoos being a defining factor as to how one can participate in decisionmaking. Nikolai wants to move his way up, but it comes at the price of carrying out some truly heinous acts. Anna and Nikolai intersect in key moments, which begins the realization of the latter not being the same as the rest of the men he serves.
Anna’s intrigue in finding out more about this girl sheds light on Russian culture, as depicted in this feature film. With her father being Russian and passing away prior to where this story picks up, she interacts with her uncle in the hopes he can translate the diary the 14-year-old had on her when she died. During those conversations, the perspective of these harshly conservative older Russian men during the modern era gets disturbingly shared. From commenting on Anna’s former interracial relationship to a bevy of other socially unacceptable topics to discuss, it demonstrates the type of culture she steps into in order to do what is best for this motherless baby. Misogyny and homophobia run rampant as seen through the way Anna gets spoken to and what Nikolai must engage in to fully get the trust and elevate within the ranks.
In typical David Cronenburg style, the violence on display in this feature goes from bone-crunching to eye-piercing with everything in between. He lays it all out there including when Nikolai needs to dispose of a body and takes care of it in a professional manner. Let’s just say it involves a couple of sharp objects to get the job done. The fight sequences don’t carry any flash but instead have a level of reality to make every blow feel fatal and cause a panic that the protagonists of this film will find themselves in trouble if they say or do the wrong thing. This constant level of dread created by the story comes from allowing the audience to know more about the dangers involved than the actual characters themselves. Anna, especially, does not realize the level of danger she has entered by continuing to pursue this manner and we learn exactly what these men will do in order to not let someone intrude in their way of life.
Each actor in the feature provided so many defining moments with Viggo Mortensen standing out amongst the pack. For someone mostly known for playing protagonists, he carries the balance of portraying someone doing heinous acts but still maintains a sliver of humanity within him. He gives off this serious and menacing look but always manages to sneakily get in some good deeds while trying to rise in the ranks of this horrid organization. He should not be messed with, which gets insinuated in the beginning as it cuts away from the things he must do and the people he gets ordered to kill. However, in the scene where the rubber meets the road, things go down and it shows exactly why he should never be crossed. Mortensen works well with the accent he must operate within to show the similarities he has with the other men, but still has his irreconcilable differences.
Along with Viggo, Vincent Cassel shines as the son of Semyon, Kirill. Being both a spoiled brat but dangerous on his own, he represents a transparent pathway to understanding the vory v zakone and the uphill battle both Nikolai and Anna face. Kirill gets the stars on his chest and knee to indicate his status but the film demonstrates he mostly received it through being the son of a high-ranking member rather than the work necessary much like Nikolai must do. Kirill has the Russian blood and connection Nikolai will never have and the former certainly does not let the latter forget it. This divide further demonstrates why Kirill can get away with so much while contributing fairly little. Cassel really captures this spirit in the way he has a menacing whininess to this character. He has moments of vulnerability when he gets yelled at by his father and when he interacts with other family members but then shows his ruthlessness on literally everyone else.
Brutal in the horrors it unveils and incredibly well made, Eastern Promises unravels a heinous group of individuals living right under the surface of where normal people operate. Only a specific group of people can fit in, which rules out anyone who’s not a white eastern European straight man who can handle the pain of getting several tattoos. Filled with plenty of shocking moments, this film constantly seeks to surprise and certainly succeeds in the endeavor.