Directed by David Cronenberg
The hero of Eastern Promises is either Anna the midwife (Naomi Watts) or Nikolai the Russian mobster driver/enforcer (Viggo Mortensen). They both end up heroic, I’d say, but Anna’s journey is one of consistency, and Nikolai shows some character growth… except you eventually learn that he’s a police informant, so it feels like he didn’t evolve as much as we simply learned one new thing about him.
So neither character really changes, from start to finish, except that they develop a brief romance which starts and ends with a single kiss. I guess I’m saying that this movie felt like a letdown, and the end kind of was a letdown. When the credits rolled I felt like absolutely nothing had happened despite the fact that A) Anna became a mother and B) Nikolai was rising up the ranks in a Russian mob family while remaining a police informant. Nikolai’s quick ascension up the mafia ranks is certainly good for the police, but what does it mean for Nikolai and for the movie? I could care less about the movie police and their fight against the movie mafia. The movie spends hardly any time on the police investigation of the Russian gangsters, so that mean that Nikolai’s fate at the end of the movie only has any significance in terms of Nikolai’s character. Maybe it’s a form of hell, that he is locked into this lifestyle, but he’s been locked into it for long enough that where he ends up doesn’t feel like a personal punishment or form of pennance, though maybe it should be. We’re told that Nikolai is violent, hell we see it, but we’re told that he’s taken it too far at times. The most interesting aspects of the movie and of his character are the blurred lines between good and evil and how Nikolai justifies his straddling of that line.
That’s why Eastern Promises feels so promising at the start. We know Anna is good, because she’s perfect in every way. She feels like another female character who is underwritten and portrayed as nothing short of angelic. There is never any question of Anna’s motivations or what her goal is, and that makes her character kind of boring. I would say that there are two ways to make us engaged with a main character. The first is to make them mysterious. Give them characteristics that don’t always go together hand in hand. In Die Hard, for example, John McClane is a badass cop, but he’s also scared of flying. That’s not something you expect of Bruce Willis. This is also a minor form of this idea, but I’ll elaborate on it shortly.
The second option is to make the main character just very easy to root for. I feel like Pixar has a lot of characters like this. We never wondered what Nemo’s dad’s goal was. We knew he wanted to find his son, so how do you make the story engaging? Make sure there are clear and escalating obstacles to his goal.
Now, with Eastern Promises, Anna has a clear goal, but the obstacles never feel that step. At first they do, certainly, but then the story focuses on Nikolai, and then we find out he’s been good all along because he’s a cop, and he helps save the baby Anna wants so dearly to protect.
So the heart of the film is really with Nikolai and his relationship with his friend Kirill (Vincent Casell), the son of the Russian mob boss, Semyon, rather than the relationship between Nikolai and Anna because they only share some meaningful screentime well past halfway into the movie.
Nikolai is cool and collected. He looks like a badass, with Elvis Presley-like slicked back hair, but he also feels so icy, so villainous. One of the first things we see Nikolai do is smoke a cigarette and remove a dead man’s fingertips and teeth so that he cannot be easily identified when his body is dropped in the river. This moment is grotesque (we see a finger cleanly severed), and Nikolai feels he should be the bad guy. Except… we know he’s not. First of all, this is Viggo Mortensen, and while I think he’d make a great villain, we’ve already rooted for him in Lord of the Rings and in the 2005 David Cronenberg film, A History of Violence, in which there is absolutely nothing about his character that makes us not like him.
So watching this film, I knew Viggo was going to be a good guy even as his dirty work added up. From the start he is also accompanied by Kirill who is always either drunk, worked up or bragging about the advantages of being the son of a crime boss. So relative to his guy, Nikolai is a saint, even as he methodically disposes of a human body.
Nikolai is bad, but he’s not as bad as the rest of the bad guys, not just because he’s Viggo, but also because he takes a liking to Anna. Anna, meanwhile, is looking for the man who impregnated a 14 year old girl who showed up in the hospital, gave birth, and promptly died. Anna has this Russian girl’s diary, and she tracks it down to the restaurant owned by Semyon. When Semyon, who knows exactly who this girl is, finds out about the diary, he is intent on getting it so the police never read about the horrors this girl witnessed.
That’s a pretty dangerous situation for Angelic Anna to find herself in, but that story seems to stall as we focus more on Nikolai’s journey. Semyon befriends Anna, but when her Russian uncle reads the diary, he tells her just how awful the girl’s story is. Anna has already met Semyon, Kirill and Nikolai, who flirts with her whenever he sees her, but now she knows that they are all bad people, and she’s right of course.
The next time Anna and Nikolai meet, it’s so he can collect from her the diary in exchange for the address of the girl’s family to whom Anna can take the baby. Nikolai doesn’t give her the address, though later he does. We know to like Nikolai, because we know that the real bad guys are Semyon and Kirill. Anna doesn’t know this, of course, but her story effectively stops there. She is given the family’s address, but Nikolai advises her that the baby is better off growing up in an adopted family than in the poverty from which the Russian girl escaped. If I remember correctly, Nikolai even tells her something along the lines of, “slaves born to slaves.”
So even though we root for Nikolai, his justification for his line of work along with his world view is quite alarming. How are we supposed to root for Viggo this time? It felt like Cronenberg wanted to really challenge the audience, and he was doing a damn fine job.
Then Nikolai is awarded two ‘stars’ which means a higher rank in the mob family, but it’s all a set up by Semyon to make two would-be assassins believe that Nikolai is his son, who the men want to kill. In an incredible and brutal sequence in a sauna, Nikolai, completely naked, fights and kills these two men, but he suffers horribly as a result. He goes to the hospital, and that’s when we see Anna again, for the first time in what feels like a while. It’s also when we find out that Nikolai has been working undercover this entire time.
Anna wants to know where her Russian uncle is, believing Nikolai to have killed him, but he tells her that he despite orders to kill the man, he didn’t. Instead he sent him to a five star hotel in Edinburgh. Nikolai tells her that her uncle ‘knows the game,’ meaning he was okay with being exiled, and Anna… accepts that? The problem goes away too easily, and this is where the movie goes from complex and layered to way too simplistic.
Before we didn’t know where Nikolai stood, morally-speaking, but after this we know that it’s Anna and Nikolai versus the world, which in this case is Semyon and Kirill. When Kirill shows up to the hospital to steal the baby (because there would be DNA to connect the baby to Semyon who I forgot to mention is the father, having created the baby through unsavory means), Anna and Nikolai head out in pursuit.
Kirill cries as he prepares to drop the baby in the river, and Anna and Nikolai plead for him to reconsider. The movie had gone from so gray to so black and white that I was sure Cronenberg was pulling a fast one on us and that the baby would surely die. Everything had become so neat that there was no way the ending would be just as neat… but it was. Nikolai gets the baby back, and by not killing a baby, Kirill I suppose redeems himself.
The movie ends as I described above, with Anna adopting the baby (which almost seemed inevitable from the start) and with Nikolai looking gravely forward as he receives some kind of honor or something from the Russian mafia.
The best parts of this movie are the hardest to watch. I mean, Jesus, I have a hard time with movie throat-slitting, and this movie starts with a pretty aggressive throat-slitting scene, like, if you saw this in the theaters, you might have still been finding your seat when the guy in the barber’s chair gurgles as a kid saws at that thing he needs to breathe. Then that kid gets his throat cut pretty badly, and Cronenberg shows it all in plain view. Cronenberg frames these shots of violence like a golden age Hollywood picture might frame up the final kiss and embrace between the two lead actors.
Then you have that scene between Nikolai and the two assassins in the sauna. I was holding my breath the entire time, not just because there were more blades and more exposed skin to be potentially cut (I’m still cringing), but also because it was so tense and dramatic.
The complex and unclear relationships between Kirill, Nikolai and Semyon were fantastic as well. I consider it a point in Cronenberg’s favor that I never knew who would kill who. At one point I was sure Semyon had told Nikolai (offscreen) to kill his ne’er do well son, and then it ended up being that Semyon had set up Nikolai to be murdered.
Eastern Promises is at its best when you don’t know who’s going to die. There is obvious tension there, but it speaks to the alluring mystery of these characters. How loyal really is Nikolai to Kirill when both of them most likely just want to ascent the ranks of the mob family? How much does Semyon really love his son when his son keeps causing problems and Semyon’s goal is to run the crime family as smoothly as possible?
But the movie ultimately abandons these questions in favor of a clean cut ending, with Nikolai a hero and Semyon the bad guy, which we knew he was. That ending is fine in theory, but it should feel like Nikolai was shedding layers progressively over the film, like a snake or an onion, and instead it feels like he was simply wearing a cloak which he decided to take off because it was uncomfortable.
Because he was an informant, it felt like that reveal could have been shown at any time. There was no solid reason for it to be when it was except that it worked best narratively that way. Man, it’s just frustrating because I feel like character growth, though always in line with dramatic/narrative beats, should at least feel like it’s happening organically. Even though the character might inevitably have a change of heart or learn some new information at the end of act 2, it should feel like that’s when the character had to learn that information. It should feel like some combination of surprising and inevitable in retrospect.
But in Eastern Promises, none of that was the case. Anna was always Angelic Anna, and Nikolai was always a well-meaning badass, but we only learned that was the case when the cloak was dropped. We thought maybe he killed Anna’s uncle, and that would be troubling considering we’re meant to root for Nikolai, but nope, suddenly he tells us that he sent him away to (literally) a five star hotel. There is, however, the possibility that he’s lying, and that’s the version I prefer. Nikolai killing Anna’s uncle cements him as an anti-hero, one we root for, but one who does bad things for reasons we can’t necessarily get behind.