I know I'm in the minority, but as a longtime fan of director David Cronenberg ('The Fly,' 'eXistenZ'), I found his critically-acclaimed 'History of Violence' to be a poorly scripted, souless mess. Devoid of the director's usual eccentricities, the straight-laced 'Violence' simply left me cold. So much so that when I heard that his next project would be another seemingly mundane crime thriller called 'Eastern Promises,' I nearly skipped its theatrical run for fear of being disappointed again. Thankfully, I couldn't stay away. 'Eastern Promises' turned out to be a far more fascinating film that restored my faith in Cronenberg's new style.
When a severely injured fourteen-year-old named Tatiana (Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse) dies while giving birth, a midwife named Anna (Naomi Watts) is determined to track down the girl's family. To her dismay, the only clues she has to Tatiana's identity are buried within a diary written entirely in Russian. Eliciting help from a kindly immigrant restaurateur named Semyon (Armin Meuller-Stahl), she soon discovers the diary poses a threat to a volatile member of the Russian mob -- the hot-tempered Kirill (Vincent Cassel). Filled with brave indignation, Anna’s confrontational attitude begins to put her family at risk. The only ally she finds in her risky crusade comes in the form of Kirill's confidant, a soft-spoken mob enforcer named Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). As the conflict comes to a head, Nikolai must choose between his criminal pursuits and the well-being of an innocent woman searching for justice.
'Eastern Promises' is a subtle, visual masterpiece that establishes its own identity while still providing Cronenberg an opportunity to pursue his usual explorations of violence, disfigurement, and bodily transformation. While it doesn't tap into the surreal imagery of his classic sci-fi work or hurl manufactured sadism at the audience ala 'History of Violence,' the film does provide an unflinching look into a ruthless criminal empire. In typical Cronenberg fashion, the film has its fair share of disturbing imagery that will leave some covering their eyes. I winced at the on-screen brutality on more than one occasion -- in fact, the climatic steamhouse scene is one of the most relentless and intense scenes I've seen in a long time. Those with weak stomachs may want to avoid this one and move on to lighter material.
Those who can keep their lunch down will find 'Eastern Promises' to be anything but a standard mob movie. Cronenberg's Russian mafia bears little resemblance to the often-caricatured American mob and he takes great care to examine what makes it unique. Anna's investigation merely constructs the framework for a more complex study of Nikolai, his personal sacrifices, and his emergence as a power player in the Russian mafia. By the end of the first act, Cronenberg has shifted his entire focus to Nikolai and the close-knit underworld of the Russian mafia. This simple move also elevates 'Eastern Promises' beyond meaningless clichés and gives the story a chance to evolve into an absorbing examination of a man torn between his heart and mind.
Of course none of that would matter if Mortensen and his supporting cast didn't step up their game to meet the director's lofty intentions. Not only does each actor deliver a phenomenal performance, but they clearly understand the need to sacrifice their glossy stardom for the overall story. I can't think of a single vanity scene in the entire film -- especially when it comes to Mortensen. The steamhouse scene I mentioned earlier finds him completely naked as he's attacked by a pair of knife-wielding assassins. Some may question the use of raw nudity in the fight (especially since there are no cleverly placed objects to block any of the visuals), but Cronenberg uses it to literally strip Nikolai of anything but his own will to survive. The scene doesn't feel exploitive -- it feels brazen and unsettling.
Is it a perfect film? Not exactly -- I have a few minor issues that knock this one down a bit. First, I always found myself one step ahead of the script, figuring out most of the major plot developments before they occurred. While this transparency certainly doesn't ruin 'Eastern Promises,' it does reduce its impact. Second, in spite of all his genre-defying decisions, Cronenberg eventually resorts to a familiar plot twist that's frankly beneath this film. Lastly, the story struggles to mount a proper thematic climax for quite some time before the director suddenly ends it all on an especially vague note.
Regardless, 'Eastern Promises' remains a smart, naturalistic flick that will stick in your brain for quite some time. I can't guarantee that everyone will enjoy Cronenberg's desolate vision of the Russian underworld, but I found it to be a compelling cinematic experience packed with a series of great performances. I wouldn't be surprised to see this one nab a few nominations from the Academy this Oscar season.
'Eastern Promises' arrives on HD DVD with a magnificent 1080p/VC-1 transfer that really took me by surprise. I wasn't expecting much from a bleak Russian mafia flick, but Cronenberg uses vibrant reds and browns to energize his vision of London. The transfer handles his dramatic palette with panache, rendering imagery that looks exceptionally solid and three-dimensional. For such a dark film, skintones are impeccably natural, contrast is strong, and black levels are pure and unaffected by crush. Likewise, fine detail is flawless and maintains a remarkable degree of clarity in even the heaviest shadows. I could count individual bricks on distant buildings, see the tiniest specks of blood spatter, and note the skin texture beneath Mortensen's tattoos. In fact, I didn't catch one hint of softness throughout the entire picture.
To top it all off, the source is pristine -- I didn’t spot any artifacting, digital noise, or edge enhancement. There is a light veil of grain present at all times, but it doesn't spike or become intrusive. As it was, the only misstep I noticed was a miniscule bit of banding in the steam clouds at the bathhouse. Even so, I'd be hard-pressed to call this filmic presentation anything but reference quality. Viewers bothered by the already intense imagery may not appreciate the unyielding picture, but fans of the film will be floored by this transfer's prowess.
'Easter Promises' features a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track that does an impressive job enriching the film's subtle soundscape. When violence explodes on the screen, the track's dynamics arrive in force. The LFE channel is used to full effect and the rear speakers swarm with every audible detail one could expect from each scene. Dialogue is crisp and perfectly prioritized -- whispered lines are clear, chaos never drowns out important gasps of information, and sound effects are accurately placed within the soundfield. Best of all, the quietest scenes have an ever-present, naturalistic ambiance that makes audible immersion a cinch.
The only downside isn't a technical fault of the mix at all. Though this track easily handles everything it’s given, 'Eastern Promises' is an exceedingly quiet film that only has fifteen minutes of genuinely aggressive sound design. In a quick comparison between the TrueHD track and the Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 mix also included on this disc, high-end sounds are slightly crisper and bass tones are a bit heavier on TrueHD track, but neither track offers the kind of experience that will make you want to pull out this disc to impress your friends.
Like the concurrently-released standard DVD, this HD DVD edition of 'Eastern Promises' contains only a small smattering of supplemental features. The only upside to this presentation is that it's presented in high definition.
David Cronenberg may not make the most accessible movies, but he certainly delivers startling experiences that stand out from the pack. 'Eastern Promises' is no exception, boasting a disturbing story and brilliant performances. This HD DVD release is solid as well. While it doesn't have much in the way of supplemental content, it does feature a reference quality transfer and a faithful TrueHD track. Newcomers may want to give this one a rent first, but fans of the film should be more than pleased with the results.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.