Eastern Promises (Cronenberg, 2007)

Eastern Promises is a sly and brutal London-set thriller with plenty of long, haunting dialogue driven scenes, but it’s a film that ends up being defined by what’s not said. David Cronenberg, a filmmaker I have loved since my undergrad days, directs Eastern Promises with tight attention to character detail and silence, as if a whispered secret might escape and taint the whole. Family, loyalty, revenge, and closure slide alongside Cronenberg’s deceivingly complex tale, weaving relationships from glances, threats, and blood. His main mode of communication lies in the form of tattoos, which dominate the Russian mob circles the characters will mingle amongst and fight against. When mid-wife Anna (Naomi Watts) inadvertently discovers the revealing diary of Tatiana, a young Russian streetwalker who’s just given birth before dying, the investigation leads to the girl’s employer, a seedy restaurant owner named Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and a dangerous indoctrination to the Russian mob. Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), one of Semyon’s trusted thugs and drivers, becomes embroiled in Anna’s quest to discover the truth, forcing each to assess loyalties and past trauma’s. Eastern Promises, much like Cronenberg’s previous film A History of Violence, finds it’s strength in the examination of past references, mysteriously building character development while advancing the plot. Cronenberg utilizes a disturbing voice-over of the deceased girl to speak volumes about the criminal and psychological situation both Nikolai and Anna find themselves within, adding a moral pressure to the proceedings. As Nikolai and Anna individually read Tatiana’s personal horrors, we get a better sense of who they are, and why they react to the crimes being committed. Whether it’s Mortensen’s simmering and tortured presence contemplating his actions prior to the virtuosic steam-bath action scene or Watts’ maternal protection watching over the newborn, these silent moments add texture to a fascinating and engaging film. Eastern Promises sneaks up on you with razor sharp consequences and lasting impressions, and like the few but horrific scenes of violence spattered throughout, cuts deep when you least expect it.

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