Eastern Promises

Eastern Promises, like A History of Violence, meant a step back from the usual body horror for David Cronenberg. Eastern Promises is a bold step forwards though: it is still vintage Cronenberg even if it’s a thriller rather than a horror movie and doesn’t involve gamepods attached to your spinal or phallic creatures coming out of your armpit. That a director like Cronenberg was so interested in a movie about the Russian maffia shouldn’t surprise you: they have the habit of tattooing their history on their body, which makes a naked body like an open book for those who know the language.
That naked bodies are capable of a good dose of body horror is proved in the sauna sequence, where Viggo Mortensen‘s character is attacked by men with knives. Not only because knives are easier to hide when you enter a sauna, but because guns are less personal. To stab a person, you need to be close to him/her. Which is what makes this fight, combined with the nakedness, so horrific to see.

That wasn’t the first time Cronenberg had you cringing in your seat. I watched Eastern Promises the day it arrived in the cinemas. A magical moment as I’d visited the dentist and the narcotics were beginning to wear out during the film. A surreal sensation, I must say. Anyway, it was 3pm and there were several dozens of people in the audience and I think every single female had screamed or yelped within the first ten minutes of the film. This body horror and Cronenberg’s refusal to glam up the violence is what makes this movie so good. Well, that and the qualities of cast and director. This isn’t your typical shoot-out blow-up extravaganza: it’s a thriller with human beings where violence really hurts.

The director had parts of the script reworked to turn this into a genuine Cronenberg feature (unlike A History of Violence – which was a movie with Cronenberg touches). The tattoo art went from a briefly mentioned aside to a more important part of the movie. This is only one of the things you learn on the DVD of Eastern Promises. The special edition contains two discs, even if it might’ve fitted on one. The specials include some interviews with the cast, the director and the writer as well as a feature on the tattoos and, rather than an audio commentary, a brief documentary on the film, what it was about and what it hoped to achieve.
There is also a B-roll with some footage of the recording. Well, if you have nothing better to do than Cronenberg shout action, Naomi Watts walking in front of the camera several times or Mortensen freezing his butt off, knock yourself out. I’m a die-hard Cronenberg fan and even I found this a waste of time.

If you open the box and take the discs out of their case you’ll find a list of the most important tattoos and their meaning. Here’s one: stars are an indication of how long someone’s been to prison. Each dot signifies one year spent in prison. If the stars are tattooed on the knees, it means this person refuses to kneel for any form of authority.
While it’s quite enlightening, someone didn’t think hard enough: the dvd case may be transparent, but the text at the part where the dvd clicks itself to the case is hardly legible. Excellent idea, poorly executed.

All in all Eastern Promises had everything in it to become a regular British thriller, but Cronenberg took the ideas and turned it into one of the best films of 2007. If you missed it in the cinema, catch it on DVD. If you caught it in the theatres, you’ll have probably run to the DVD store by now.

Film: 9/10
DVD: 6.5/10 (would’ve been 7.5 if they’d thought about the packaging)


One thought on “Eastern Promises

  1. Deeopey August 18, 2008 / 10:35

    I am really keen to see this again. I took it to be quite a straightforward thriller on first viewing but it’s hung about in my memory a lot longer than you might’ve expected it to. Like you said it’s the non-thriller elements like the tattoo touches (and the sauna fight) that make this interesting. A quality subversion of convention.

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