December 23, 2007

"Eastern Promises"

Here's my full-length review from The American Conservative of the Golden Globe-nominated "Eastern Promises:"

"Eastern Promises" is a violent, sentimental, and efficient Russian immigrant mob movie with an overpowering star performance from Viggo Mortensen (the King in "The Return of the King") as Hollywood's favorite kind of hero, the dangerous man with a heart of gold. He plays the new chauffeur of a London-based Russian mafia family trafficking in sex slaves from the Old Country.

Veteran art house goremeister David Cronenberg considerately telegraphs each grotesque throat-slitting far enough in advance that I could close my eyes until it was over, except for one naked knife fight in a Turkish bath that must have gone on even longer than the similar scene in "Borat."

Cronenberg's most popular film with the public was 1986's "The Fly," with Jeff Goldblum as a mad scientist sprouting bristly black fur due to an experiment gone terribly wrong. In contrast, critics adored Cronenberg's 2005 action movie with the pretentious title, "A History of Violence." Cronenberg cast as the small town nice guy who isn't whom he seems the half-Danish Mortensen, along with the uber-WASP William Hurt (a step-grandson of Henry and Clare Booth Luce) as his Philadelphia mafioso brother who pulls him back in. (Exactly which Philly crime family was left vague: perhaps the notorious Anglo-Scandinavian Main Line Mob?)

The implausible casting was a nudge to rapturous critics to overinterpret this dopey little shoot-em-up not as a normal gangster flick, but as a profound anti-Bush allegory about the unspeakable violence that underlies American history etc. etc. …

Unfortunately, "A History of Violence" seemed perpetually a bit off, as if Cronenberg had never been to a small town. I saw it at a $3 theatre and the low-budget Saturday night crowd gave it the raspberry, hooting at its phony twists.

Cronenberg's latest crime family thriller collaboration with Mortensen, "Eastern Promises," is a sizable improvement. It might be almost as preposterous as "A History of Violence," but its less familiar setting amidst Russians in London makes it easier to enjoy than Cronenberg's clankingly inept vision of middle America.

"Eastern Promises" raises politically incorrect questions about why we would want so many newcomers that immigrant mafias have become inevitable. Cronenberg explained his opposition to immigrants failing to assimilate to the New York Times:

"At its worst, it’s you come and you live there, but you live in a little ghetto of your own culture that you brought with you. I suppose that’s happening in the States with the Spanish language. Can multiculturalism really work?"

"Eastern Promises" asks whether the West needs, in particular, quite so many foreign pimps to lure naïve blonde adolescents here from Eastern Europe with promises of singing jobs, only to rape them, hook them on heroin, and enslave them in brothels here? (Steve Knight's script is so hostile to the immigrant criminals that he makes Putin's secret policemen the good guys!)

Mortensen possesses what Cronenberg calls "very Russian cheekbones," and he has the "flathead" look of a post-Soviet goon down perfectly. In truth, Mortensen exudes so much star power that he overwhelms his role as a nobody who recently showed up in London from somewhere vague in the Urals. Luckily, the supposedly wily old crime lord never wonders why this confident, competent, and commanding 40-something man with an air of innate nobility needs an entry-level job.

Meanwhile, the supporting plot line, with Naomi Watts ("King Kong") as a nice English midwife, makes only symbolic sense as a metaphor for the Hobbesian decay spread by immigration. When a comatose 14-year-old Russian prostitute dies delivering her baby, the midwife pockets her diary, hoping to deduce who the baby's grandparents are. (Apparently, perhaps due to National Health budget cuts, the job of legally identifying unknown babies has been delegated to random hospital staffers to have a go at in their spare time.) Displaying formidable powers of bad judgment, she asks a courtly Russian restaurant owner, who happens to be the godfather pimp himself, to translate it.

When she realizes who her translator is -- and that he knows she knows -- instead of calling Scotland Yard for protection, she arranges a meeting with his chauffeur, bringing along her aged uncle and mum as bodyguards. Evidently, in the spirit of the "vibrant" globalized London -- O brave new world! -- she's forgotten that boring old England spent 800 years developing rule of law so that the English wouldn't have to form their own family mafias just for self-protection from other mafias.

Rated a very hard R.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

The Main Line Mafia. Awesome. I hear the crew from Bala Cynwyd is especially bad.

Anonymous said...

I got grief from my friends for many years after I recommended that we all go see "Boogie Nights" while in high school. The nude wrestling scene is what kept me from recommending this movie to my acquaintances.

A TV edit of this movie would actually be vastly superior to the original. Now I feel like an old man for saying that.

Anonymous said...

Is it me or have the movies become ridiculously violent as of late? Most of the highly recommended recent releases, such as this film, "No Country for Old Men", and "Sweeney Todd", contain graphic violence. What does this say about the state of our culture? I have no desire to see throats being slit in graphic detail, so I'm probably going to avoid all of these films, despite the temptation to see them dictated by my love of film.

Steve Sailer said...

Similarly, the TV-edit version of Cameron Crowe's "Fast Times at Ridgmont High" is much better than the R-rated original. Lots of movies from the 1970s-1980s had lots of gratuitous sex and nudity that's out of fashion today -- e.g., when they show "National Lampoon's Vacation" on television, they leave out the housewife mom's two topless scenes.

Many current movies would likewise benefit from TV-edits of the violence and gore.

In general, the trend in American movies has been away from sex/nudity and toward violence/gore.

Anonymous said...

I'm probably stating the obvious but I think the reason for the extreme graphic goriness is to show how extremely violent these people -- whom, on the street, appear as "normal" -- are.

Also, perhaps this may have to do with the fact of Anglo culture' 800-year old trials and tribulations to provide an alternative safety net (known as rule of law) to family protection: that crime has gotten more and more "civilized" (i.e. more sophisticated in plan and execution, less and less centered on actually physically hurting the victim) in the West.

Throat slitting is not only very gory and very painful for the victim, it is also very messy. But then, therein lies the social reality of it as a culturally-specific act:

1) only the toughest manage to lead lives under the threat of such violent threats;

2) if your only protection is the family, why bother with elaborate crime schemes? Why waste so much energy, resources, brain-power to protect yourself from a known address -- rather than an anonymous protection which may be everywhere (rule of law)?


Anonymous said...

>What does this say about the state of our culture?<

the current american culture is unable to produce greatness in most any artistic field because the culture is now actually a counter-culture which is spiteful angry insecure and not at all confident and interested in truth and beauty. this is the post-modern descent into nihilism and narcissism. the result is a disposable culture featuring flashy products hyped by a sophisticated marketing machine - but with no shelf life.

contrary to bob zimmerman's view that "great art subverts a culture" - great art actually celebrates a culture. that is the historical record. it is understood to be the case in all time periods but the present. does anyone give a damn about period art that mocked ancient greece or satirized ancient egypt? whether it's european chinese or african art the common thread is a celebration of culture. celebration. and not vivisection of the culture.

when the wealthy of a society degenerate to a point where they hold the culture in contempt (and funnel financial support only toward "critical art works") the resulting artwork will be crap every time. so now is the time for regression self-hatred self-mutilation scatology and infantilism. this is the stuff that attracts backing or funding. the situation is not too far removed from the drunken master's act of firing bullets at a slave's feet and screaming at them to "dance!"

Anonymous said...

I think the gore is to appeal to a broad demographic.

The present company is getting excited about the Russian mafia in London, and what this means about immigration policy.

Most people aren't going to get that. But they will come away from the movie and tell their friends how cool the eye stabbing scene was.

As for the male nudity, perhaps that's to make it seem like an art-house film and thus get Oscar consideration from the Academy Award voters, who would otherwise ignore this as a macho gangster action film.

Anonymous said...

Steve is quite correct, audiences generally don't like gore.

Consider this weekend's box office total. Charlie Wilson and Sweeney Todd both came around $9 million, as opposed to $45 million for National Treasure 2.

Gore and ultra-violence are the hall-marks now of the "arty" film designed to appeal to a rather degenerate and status-obsessed elite who are determined not to resemble ordinary people in any way.

Francis K is quite correct.

Of course in a society like Eastern Promises where only the toughest survive, a complete lack of innovation, change, and growth occurs. You get the sterile stasis of say, Meji Japan, and then suddenly the Black Fleet of a dynamic society where the rule of law, large-scale trust networks, nationalism, and other Anglo-Saxon innovations bring steamships, cannon, and repeating firearms to your doorstep. Against which you have useless Samurai swords and "fighting spirit" of the toughest of the tough.

Anonymous said...

As a film about immigration, eastern promises would be, say, almost a century late. I'd say it's much more a film about nothing or at best a film length Law and Order attempt to make sensational news about Russian crime into a semi-story. Viggo's performance is singular and the only positive thing I can think of to say about this hackneyed movie.

I am not sure why no one notes the secret agent twist, which ruined what could have been a more interesting psychological portrait of the criminal.