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“I’m higher to sin but don’t we all sin
If that is the truth then the truth is grim”
–The Coral, “I Remember When”

I have a confession. While watching Eastern Promises, I found it generic and disliked this “new Cronenberg.” David Cronenberg, one of the top directors of our generation, used to have this obsession with flesh (or “the new flesh,” as he sometimes calls it in his movies). He changed his tone a bit when he made Spider in 2002, and even though I adore the movie, something was missing: the director’s obsession with the grotesque. He followed this with A History of Violence, which I found to be good, but weak for the director. Then I was thinking during Eastern Promises that this was his weakest film I’ve seen (I’ve yet to see a film from him that I disliked). Then the third act emerged, forced me to revise what I expected of the movie and to decide what the movie was actually about, and I was silent for a good ten minutes or so after the final cut to black and credits. I also have an apology. I’m sorry, Mr. Cronenberg, that I ever doubted you.

The trailer has lead me (and others) to believe the movie is about one thing, but let me give a plot summary that is not misleading. Anna (Naomi Watts) is a nurse who finds a diary on a girl who died during childbirth. She can’t read Russian (the movie is set in Russia), but her uncle can and starts to translate it. When he deciphers the address, Anna brings it to Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who has connections with Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), a gangster and his chauffeur, respectively. Anna hopes to find the dead girl’s family so that the child may not fall into the endless cycle of a foster home. However, Semyon is involved with some very dangerous individuals, and it may not be a good idea to let him have the baby. This story plays out in an interesting query of what is right and wrong, and poses another intriguing question: Can one do the right thing, even though he’s doing something bad (in effect, under particular circumstances, can the end justify the means)?

Now, don’t get me wrong: Cronenberg still has a thing for graphic violence and sex. Scenes from History of Violence or one from Eastern Promises may not immediately beckon Cronenberg’s 1996 film Crash, but after seeing it right before or after Promises, I felt a connection. (In addition, the gangster’s numerous tattoos are suggestive of Vaughan’s body art and mangled flesh in Crash.) The sauna fight and opening scene are just as brutal as the kills in History. Cronenberg even has a few touches of “the flesh,” like one shot that concentrates on the umbilical cord of the newborn baby. Then the themes of the movie magically transpire and tie-in to those great images and scenes. Appropriately set at Christmas, the story ends up being about sacrifice and making other people happy rather than only thinking of oneself. The movie consistently features scenes of challenging rank, disrespect, and violence (of course), usually all done in the name of doing what someone thinks is right.

Word has probably already spread about “the sauna scene.” I won’t explain it, but I will add to what’s there: Even though the scene at the bath house is violent, film geeks will find it somewhat humorous. The set design is reminiscent of (one of my all-time favorites, about a film director resorting to his daydreams to keep his sanity), and the fighting reminded me of Torn Curtain (which features a long death scene to show how long it really takes to kill somebody). Both are appropriate in their own way, and I smiled, despite the carnage.

At the end, after we realize what is happening and we are oddly moved, Kirill tells Nikolai, “Let’s go out and celebrate. Happy New Year!” At this moment, we can feel a certain cleansing, a renewal. (At another point, Anna explains to Nikolai, “Sometimes birth and death go together.”) The whole scene is beautiful, and the denouement only makes us care even more about the characters and their continuing story. For once, I experienced sentiment in a Cronenberg movie. As he has aged, he has found a new way of expressing himself, and if he continues speaking this language the way he did in Eastern Promises (even though some of his older, more grotesque movies are classics), he should go for it.

I began with a quote, so I will close with the last line of the movie, which is what left me speechless (along with the image of Nikolai sitting alone at a table in a restaurant): “This is why I left…to find a better life.”

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  1. […] Eastern Promises – A surprise move from David Cronenberg who has been going in a new direction since A History of Violence two years ago. I moderately liked History (it didn’t feel the same as other Cronenberg movies), but Promises shows he’s still the same Cronenberg with a twist: it’s like The Brood and Videodrome and The Fly, but minus the violence. That sounds like there’s not much left, but those other movies had a heavy weight with them that made them more than exploitation films, and Promises asks some heavy questions (and it even has a little sentimentality at the end) that don’t have a definite answer. […]

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