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Eastern Promises

On my right, The Sword of Doom and A History of Violence sit on top of a copy of Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation; to my left, four ice cubes whittle themselves away in a glass of Johnny Walker. On the couch next to me, my iPod is playing Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil—and has been, since I stepped out of the theater after the credits from Eastern Promises rolled.

I don’t know if you’ve ever heard Rachmaninoff’s Vigil—hell, I don’t even know if you listen to classical music. If you haven’t heard it, find a copy. Any copy. Even Robert Shaw’s occasionally schlocky recording will do. There are very few things that make this atheist take pause and wonder if Dawkins is a loon, and Russian Orthodox choral music seems to make the list. If you can listen to the sixth movement without stopping what you’re doing, then you’re a far stronger person than I.

Right. Apparently, whiskey makes me annoyingly digressive. Go me.

So. Eastern Promises. To be perfectly honest, I’m surprised I’m at all taken with a movie like this, largely because I agree with much of Not Coming to a Theater Near You’s review: the plot is poorly stitched together, the script feels a bit threadworn in parts, and the cinematography is just damned uneven.

But an hour later, I can’t stop thinking about Eastern Promises. Cronenberg’s always been driven to externalize the internal. The Fly, The Brood, Naked Lunch—their characters all undergo horrific disfigurations, which usually represents some sort of inner brokenness with which Cronenberg’s fascinated. But with Viggo Mortensen’s Nikolai, a painted man who shares a last name with the famous chess player, Cronenberg still manages to shove us into the allegorical end of the pool without resorting to covering donuts with digestive fluid. In one quiet scene, probably my favorite, a semicircle of Russian mafia fathers confront a stripped-to-the-shorts Nikolai: treating him as the allegorical text that Cronenberg obviously considers him, they quite literally read his life history back to him.

I think it’s these little metaphorical flourishes that have me mulling this movie over: Mortensen, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Vincent Cassel really anchor the film with some incredible performances, but this is the kind of movie with which my old thesis advisor would have a field day. It’s the signals and signs that Cronenberg massaged into the movie that I love. When the Inspector mentions that “in Russian prison, your life’s story is written on your body” immediately before holding a hand-written piece of paper up to the camera’s lens, I can’t help but think of Cronenberg sitting over the film stock for Eastern Promises, tattooist’s needle in hand.

This is a blog entry posted on day 11078 in the Journal.

2 comments posted.


  1. Rob Weychert says:

    Nice write-up! I think it’s worth pointing out, though, that Vincent Cassel’s real triumph was keeping his underwritten character from derailing the entire film. There were varying amounts of depth throughout the cast of characters, but his pivotal role (Kirill) seemed like it would have felt more at home in Frank Miller’s one-dimensional fantasy land.

  2. The Robot says:

    That’s a really great point, Rob. Actually, you’ve hit on one of my main issues with the script: I felt like most of the main characters were pretty two-dimensional. But you’re right: Kirill borders on being a poorly drawn caricature, and I think Cassel really saved the character. He was still glossed-over pretty handily by the script (I would have liked to have seen more of the dynamic between Kirill and his father, Semyon), but I still enjoyed watching him when he showed up onscreen.

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