Film Reviews

Eastern Promises David Cronenberg

Rating - 8/10

Eastern Promises is the new offering by Canadian director David Cronenberg, who seems to have been born to prove Auteur Theory. From exploitation horror to commercial horror to arthouse obscuria to commercial thriller, his films boast a remarkable consistency and evolution of style and theme. Eastern Promises, then, while always having the style of a modern Cronenberg, does not always seem like a Cronenberg, lacking the usual thematic touches of the director. They can be found if one digs deep enough, but pegging this in the Cronenberg continuum is like placing Luis Bunuel's Mexican potboilers within his canon, where commonplace genre elements can be misconstrued as authorial choice. There are no viri invading the mind and flesh in Eastern Promises, nor any supernormal biological transformations.

Cronenberg joked that his last film, the stellar A History of Violence, was his "sellout picture," in which he finally gave in and made a conventional Hollywood thriller. That idea turned out to be a joke, as the movie dealt with a buried past and an ingrained instinct and nature much like the positive parasites in previous pictures, sliding a mature Cronenberg into the mainstream undetected. Eastern Promises may play the same ruse even more insideously. The film plays mostly as a conventional, if more deep and thoughtful than it might appear, personal thriller with occasional international, Cronenbergian, and humanistic shades. Like A History of Violence, Eastern Promises is based on an outside text (in this case a script by Steven Knight, who also wrote Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things, which also detailed the seemier side of London immigrant crime) stars Viggo Mortensen in a role affirming greater depth than his heroic Lord of the Rings plasticity, while playing on the conviction of his virility. Naomi Watts compliments him with a role requiring her again to be (per usual) intensely concerned, and coincidentally attractive.

The story, on a grand scale, involves the plight of immigrants to London from Eastern Europe, an ongoing diaspora that persists, importing and enrichening communities along with their less wholesome sects. Though this is a European story, it resonates through America and any imperialist power with the looming ghosts of immigrants seeking a better life only to find new forms of enslavement. Here, Russian organized crime is as strong and depraved in London today as it was in Russia during Stalin's reign. "Ordinary," or assimilated, Londoners find themselves drawn into the melodrama. Characters routinely prove to be not what they seem.

Cronenberg does not rule over the proceedings, but it does boast his tasteful style. When his presence becomes known, however, usually in cases of extreme sex or violence, the actual slashing of throats, the commanded fucking of prostitutes, the sticky particulars of childbirth, or the nasty details of corpse desposal, it really becomes known. Like A History of Violence, Eastern Promises punctuates long sequences of character driven drama with outbursts of unsparing violence (with an occasional comic kick). One fight sequence in particular is poised to sit among the greatest and most brutal of all time.

Even when the movie does not bear these obvious Cronenberg trademarks, however, it does display his mastery. David Cronenberg, even if he has, after all these years, defected to the better end of mainstream filmmaking, proves himself to be a great craftsman of thoughtful suspense thrillers. Eastern Promises is one of the most thoughtful and well executed I've seen in some time. The machinations pose questions, the characters leave them open, and the viewer is left curious about how they will resolve themselves, even as a final shot and voiceover underlines why somebody would bother. Eastern Promises is a conventional thriller of unconventional interest and profundity.