Directed by: David Cronenberg
Premise: A nurse (Naomi Watts) tries to find the family of a young woman who died while giving childbirth. Her search leads the nurse to figures in the Russian mafia, and she becomes involved with a mafia clean-up man (Viggo Mortensen) who is torn between his allegiance to the crime family and what he knows is right.
What Works: Eastern Promises is another terrific film from director David Cronenberg and it mirrors many of the styles and filmmaking choices of A History of Violence. Like that film, Eastern Promises mixes brutal scenes of violence with beautiful cinematography and it is able to deal with very uncomfortable subject matter in tasteful and yet explicit ways. This film features a few very good performances, namely Viggo Mortensen as a mafia member who is on his way to being inducted into the crime family. His relationship to a mafia advocate (Vincent Cassel) is very interesting, as their interaction becomes a sibling rivalry for the affections of the father (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Mortensen’s performance allows the character’s emotions to play out in subtle ways that illustrate his conflict and character development but do not betray the character with unnecessary sentimentality. The power relationships between Mortensen’s character and various mob figures plays very well and allows for some heartbreaking tensions as he must chose between following the orders of his superiors or following his conscience. Watts is also good in the film and the picture differentiates her from the usual mother figure. This could have become a typical maternal savior role, but the script gives her character some nice background to work with. For that matter, the film could have become a very clichéd redemption plotline with a criminal achieving deliverance by going through the usual motions, but Eastern Promises is much smarter than that and provides the audience with characters and scenarios that have much more depth than cookie cutter redemption stories.
What Doesn’t: Some scenes of violence and sexuality in Eastern Promises exceed even those of A History of Violence, and audience members who cannot handle Cronenberg’s other work will struggle with Eastern Promises as well.
Bottom Line: Eastern Promises is an exceptional film about redemption and choices. Curiously, what makes the film so effective is that it resists many of the familiar elements of organized crime redemption stories. Instead, it seeks to create authentic characters and put those characters in situations that are heartbreaking, and that makes the story far more effective.
Episode: N/A (October 21, 2007)