Eastern Promises (2007)

Posted on February 10, 2011


The one thing that can be said outright about this film is that the acting is superb. Viggo is brilliant in his role. His slicked-back, severe pouf resembles the Frankenstein monster’s forehead with chiseled chin and jaws to match. But this monster is coolness personified; he never hurries, speaks deliberately, leers casually and chops dead fingers in style.

Is Eastern Promises a mafia/crime film? Yes, but only superficially. You have the warring clans, ancient traditions and codes, loyalty, betrayal, the question of succession, a hot-headed son and a seemingly benevolent patriarch; but, they are tropes and therefore, we don’t feel very inclined to bother too much with them. There is the human tragedy of the young girls caught up in the international prostitution racket and the experience of the second-generation immigrants, but the film limits itself to a tiny area in a huge canvas.

The film focuses on Nikhol, his soul and body. It is a strangely fascinating but ultimately, frustrating experience watching this hulking driver disposes off bodies, baby-sit the hot-headed son, have sex with an underage prostitute at his master’s command and finally, develop something resembling moral outrage — only to have it all taken away with the little twist in the tale. Sure the twist explains why Nikhol shows flashes of unexpected compassionate but the fact that the twist bestows moral and legal justification for his character and actions ruins it for me. Eastern Promises ends up resembling an old-fashioned moral tale — the bad guy is put away and the innocent is saved. Even that would have been okay, but the film itself, of all its focus on Nikhol and his unique moral predicament, feels barren and empty except for the superb public bath scene.

The public bath scene is the big scene. It’s brilliantly executed and performed. There is something profoundly shocking about watching a naked man fight with bare hands for his life. It reminded me of the father-daughter reconciliation at the end of Babel. Like Babel, it is primal and cleansing and suggests renewal/rebirth — the next time we see Nikhol, he is born new for us. The bath scene also links the newborn baby and Nikhol, both of them fighting for their life and covered in blood. Of course this being a Cronenberg film, blood and gore is only to be expected and there is plenty of it — most of it gratuitous.

The way the film concludes is a major letdown; it just fizzles out having expended all its steam in that bath sequence. Towards the end, there is a brief glimpse of tenderness and what could have been a happy family — Nikhol, Anna and the baby. And yet, I only felt a little sorry for Nikhol as he puts those hard-earned tattoos to good use and continues leading his double life.

The Viggo-Cronenbreg team has all the potential to become something as potent and creatively rewarding as the Scorsese-De Niro team; but, Eastern Promises isn’t Taxi Driver, so we will have to wait.

Posted in: Reviews