A predictable plot with trademark David Cronenberg highlights is salvaged by a great cast… but just barely.
When a young pregnant girl name Tatiana is brought into a London emergency room, Anna (Naomi Watts) is a nurse on hand to help deliver the baby before the badly injured mother dies. Anna recovers a diary written in Russian that may hold clues to Tatiana’s family, but when translation proves to be difficult, Anna seeks a Russian restaurant named on a card in the diary and questions the owner, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), about the girl. On her way out, Anna meets Semyon’s son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and the family’s driver, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), never suspecting that the diary may contain secrets that these three men would kill to protect.
Eastern Promises sets its stage and introduces its characters with slow calculation, letting the audience know who they are before you learn what they do and what they are each responsible for. Each of the players inhabit their parts like second skins, the kind of casting where actors and actresses disappear into their imaginary characters to become someone else (which appears to be something Viggo Mortensen has gotten very good at). The problem, however, lies in the script and the turns that the story takes. There really aren’t any twists so much as tight turns, but the implication of those revelations is enough to skew our perception of these characters and their motivations. Instead of actions that appear to be off typecasting, these particular plot points indicate that things aren’t as unusual as we were led to believe.
What is actually interesting are the stories that tattoos tell in the Russian crime syndicate. To paraphrase one character’s explanation, “Without tattoos, you don’t exist.” Who you are and what you’ve done is there to be seen, and so is your status in a powerful crime family. In interviews, it has been revealed that the tattoos used in the film are based on actual imagery and that portions of the story were rewritten to implement as much of this detail as possible. In retrospect, these markings give the film its unique identity and make it hard to imagine what would have been left with it. Still, a great concept can’t cover up obvious plotting problems and traveling down the same road as before (oh look, THIS maniac killer wears a smiley face button… how quirky!)
It’s no secret I’m not a huge fan of A History of Violence, particularly how the story unfolded and where it stranded the viewers. What’s interesting here is that in Violence, Mortensen plays a man trying to escape his dark past, while in Promises, Mortensen is seeking a dark future. What isn’t interesting is the length of time taken to do very little originally and, while we get a better ending point than the “anything could happen next” that Violence ended on, it’s hard not to feel robbed by the obvious turns that flip complex motivations into standard Hollywood by-the-numbers storytelling. Why all the pretentiousness if there’s really nothing new here? Oscar bait anyone? A two-hour documentary about Russian jailhouse tats would have been preferred.
(a two and a half skull recommendation out of four)