Saunas, Tattoos and Angry Russians | Eastern Promises Turns 10

Russia is more than seventeen million square kilometres in size. It occupies one-eighth of the world’s landmass and is home to some one hundred and forty-four million people, all of whom are presumably terrorists, mobsters, and super villains. From James Bond to John Wick, Russians have gotten a pretty bad rap in cinema and it’s fair to say that David Cronenberg does the Russian people no people favours in his 2007 crime-thriller Eastern Promises.

British-Russian midwife Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) delivers the baby of Tatiana, a fourteen-year-old Russian prostitute. The girl dies but Anna keeps her diary. Seeking to find the girl’s family she visits a nearby restaurant, a business card of which was found in the girl’s possession. Little does Anna know that the restaurant is run by the vory v zakone, the Russian Mafia to you and me. Fearing prosecution over Tatiana’s rape and death Russian Mafioso or vor, literally thief-in-law, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) attempts to secure the diary by fair means or foul. Meanwhile his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) has embroiled himself in a feud with a rival Chechen mob over the murder of a Chechen vor. In the middle of it all is the Mafia’s fixer-upper Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen).

To make up for the lack of any Russian characters in the film, Cronenberg and company sure put their research in. The Russian Mafia members are covered in tattoos. Inextricably linked to the prison gang culture across Russia, and its various republics, the tattoos signify status, family, and loyalty. Nikolai has tattoos of crosses, cathedrals and stars covering his torso and arms each signifying his loyalty to the mob as well as his physical prowess. A common anecdote about the film is when Viggo Mortensen went to a Russian restaurant in London with the tattoo make-up still on him. Diners apparently fell silent out of fear until Mortensen cleared the air. If nothing else it denotes the power of symbols in Eastern Promises and the fear associated with the violence in them.

David Cronenberg is known for disgusting displays of metamorphosis as well as disturbing outbursts of violence in his films. If you haven’t seen The Fly let’s just say you won’t look at Jeff Goldblum the same way again. Eastern Promises is no different though it’s neither sci-fi nor body horror. The symbol most people associate with the film after the tattoos are probably the lino knives. After finding out about his son Kirill’s feud Semyon attempts to sacrifice Nikolai in his stead.

What follows is a fight scene that will remain burned into my memory for a long time.

Kirill has a Chechen vor murdered by a Kurdish associate at the start of the film. In revenge, the vor’s brothers slit the throat of the Kurd’s nephew before demanding Kirill’s life as revenge. Nikolai is given vor status by Semyon and sent to his supposed death. What follows is a fight scene that will remain burned into my memory for a long time. Viggo Mortensen is a good-looking man but I never really wanted to see him naked and covered in blood as he butchers two Chechen men in a sauna. The knives used in the fight are short and curved. They open wounds that don’t easily close and the blades themselves are simple to conceal. Over five minutes of screen time Nikolai brutally kills the two men sent to murder him. The violence is worthy of a Hostel film and serves to hammer home how dreadful mob violence is.

Eastern Promises does not paint an attractive portrait of Eastern-European immigrants. Anna’s uncle is a racist that makes some very distressing comments about mixed-race relations. The other Russian men of the film are, at best, as cold as a Siberian tundra or at worst chauvinistic rapists. The Russian women, those with speaking roles anyway, are trafficked sex workers from impoverished backgrounds. Despite Nikolai’s best efforts to protect Anna from this world she is inexorably drawn into the dark underbelly of London’s Russian immigrant population.

Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises. -
Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises. Source

Nikolai is eventually revealed to be an FSB agent undercover in London’s Russian underground. He is the only good Russian the viewer sees in the film and even then, we fear him. Mortensen’s Oscar-nominated performance gives us a man hidden beneath a mask. Over the course of the film he is forced to reject his family, butcher the corpse of a dead man and root himself even deeper in a world he despises. The last shot of the film sees Nikolai, now boss of the Mafia; twirling a prayer bracelet, and staring off into space knowing that the road before him will be far more dangerous than even the one he walked before.

Family saves in Eastern Promises but only if it is whole and incorruptible.

Eastern Promises’ core theme is that of isolation. Anna begins the film grieving over the loss of her child via a miscarriage and the disintegration of a relationship because of it. She is isolated in her depression, incapable of sleeping or getting out of bed except to work. Her mother fails to comfort her and her uncle only makes matters worse. Kirill is disrespected by his father and it is implied he is impotent as well. Nikolai is stuck in a world he has come to know too well and the longer he stays there the deeper he digs his grave. Family saves in Eastern Promises but only if it is whole and incorruptible. Only Anna has a way out at the end of the film. The remaining characters are doomed to suffer in a hell of their own making.

Eastern Promises adds nothing interesting to the endless procession of disposable Russian characters in cinema but it is a worthwhile film all the same. Few can create such deplorable and miserable characters as Cronenberg can. Even fewer can make such ruthless violence so watchable. Eastern Promises is barbaric in tone and grim in mood but nothing is without purpose in the film. It established Cronenberg as more than a schlocky master of gore but as a thoughtful and ultimately empathetic filmmaker.

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