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Movie Review

London, dark and wet. A young man—no more than a boy, really—runs through rain into a barbershop. The barber and his customer talk about the boy, toggling between English and Russian as the barber complains how the boy won't do a favor for him—one small favor. Take the razor, the barber asks the boy.

"Azim, please," the boy begs. The barber barks at the boy again to take the razor. He finally does ... and slits the customer's throat.

London, dark and wet. A young woman—no more than girl, really—staggers into a drugstore, begging for help. The pharmacist dismisses her—until he notices the blood pouring from between her legs, below her pregnant belly. She slumps to the floor, her bare feet smeared with red.

So opens Eastern Promises, a film that showcases a London not found on any tourist map, one in which Russian mafia lurk in shadows. Here, in backstreets and brothels, they paint their fortunes with wine, sex, deceit and death, and their stories are told in tattoos.

The girl escaped that world somehow. At least for a moment or two before she died. She left behind two things: a baby girl and a diary. Each holds secrets, and Anna Khitrova—an Englishwoman of Russian lineage—is determined to find out what they are.

Her first stumbling steps lead her to a Russian restaurant run by Semyon, a grandfatherly gentleman who feeds her borscht and agrees to translate the diary. She also runs into Semyon's out-of-control son, Kirill, and his stoic "driver," Nikolai.

It doesn't take Anna very long to surmise these three Russian "gentlemen" are more than they pretend.

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Positive Elements

Eastern Promises is filled with complex characters, and Nikolai is the hardest to pin down. He's clearly more than the driver Kirill introduces him as. His body is covered in tattoos, signs he spent hard time in the Russian penal system. He's portrayed as a criminal thug, perhaps a killer. There is no question he makes a living doing despicable things.

But without revealing just how deeply layered and conflicted Nikolai truly is, it's fair to say he shows signs of compassion. At first, it's little things: He gives Anna a ride home, then fixes her broken motorcycle and delivers it to her. He gives Anna an address where the baby's next of kin are located, but adds that it's not a great place to raise a child. Perhaps, he suggests to Anna, you should raise the baby—Christine—yourself in London.

[Spoiler Warning] As the film wears on, Nikolai becomes less a threat to Anna and more a protector. He sends Anna's uncle to safety and saves a child from a would-be killer.

Even through-and-through villains are not completely without virtue here. It does nothing to minimize their awful deeds. Indeed—as it should—it makes them seem more horrific as they awaken your sympathy. Semyon respects tradition, ruthlessly protects his family and, one suspects, embraces whatever twisted code of conduct the Russian mafia adheres to. Kirill shows true affection for his young daughter, and when his father orders him to kill Christine, he weeps at the thought.

Anna's motivations, meanwhile, are more straightforward: protect the baby, like any good surrogate mother would. In this she does a remarkable job, and she even has the gumption to take on the Russian mafia while doing so.

Spiritual Content

Of all the tattoos covering Nikolai's body, the most recognizable is that of a crucifix across his chest. Audiences first see the cross during an extremely graphic sex scene with an enslaved prostitute—an act in which Nikolai is forced to participate—creating a jarring, perhaps blasphemous, dissonance. Once the deed is done, Nikolai begins asking questions of the woman: her last name, her hometown. He throws a wad of money on the bed, along with a card with the Virgin Mary embossed on it. "Stay alive a little longer. Understand?" he says.

Later, we learn the police break into the illegal brothel and free the woman—the implication being that Nikolai tipped them off to her plight.

The baby's importance is heightened by tiny echoes of religious themes and even the calendar itself. She was born Dec. 20, the day before the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year. Anna names her Christine because the name "sounds like Christmas." The saga ends early either New Year's Eve or New Year's Day—a symbolic time of new beginnings.

Azim tells Kirill and Nikolai that his son has been "touched by an angel," meaning he's not quite right in the head.

Sexual Content

Much of Semyon's underground business involves trafficking girls for sex, though outside one girl who dies at the beginning, we never see any of his victims. Still, it is established that rape is one of the mobster's tools in trade.

Nikolai and Kirill visit a brothel in which one woman seductively dances around a pole and another two women are briefly seen kissing each other. To prove to Kirill that he's not gay, Nikolai is forced to have animalistic sex with a woman in Semyon's "favorite stable." The scene is both explicit and repulsive, filled with sexual motion and sounds. The prostitute is completely naked, and her breasts are fully visible. Kirill watches Nikolai come to orgasm.

Nudity is mixed with extreme violence, later, when Nikolai is attacked in a public steam bath, and he battles his assailants while completely naked. Nothing is left to the imagination.

Anna apparently once got pregnant by an ex-boyfriend; the baby died before it came to term.

Violent Content

There are only three or four violent scenes in Eastern Promises, taking only a few minutes of total screen time. But those minutes are filled with horrible, brain-burning stuff.

Nikolai's nude fight with two Chechnyan goons in the bath house is one of the most violent scenes I've ever seen as a film reviewer. His body is graphically sliced, gouged and mutilated to the point at which you can see large wounds gape and yaw as he battles his would-be killers. The thugs wind up dead on the floor. One gets stabbed through the back of the neck, and he got off easy. The other guy gets stabbed in the gut and has his arm noisily and gruesomely shattered before Nikolai plunges a knife into his eye.

The opening scene at the barber's is quicker, but no less graphic. The young killer saws through his victim's throat like a tough steak, as blood spatters and squirts. Later, Nikolai clips the fingers off the man's frozen corpse. And then the killer is killed, his throat slit, too, blood trickling from the open wound.

Semyon kicks his son in the stomach twice when Kirill comes home drunk.

Crude or Profane Language

Characters engage in bilingual cursing, tossing out the f-word a total of about 30 times in English and Russian. The s-word is spoken a half-dozen times; "b--ch" about the same. Both God's and Jesus' names are abused. Mobsters use the word "queer" as a slur.

Drug and Alcohol Content

The dead girl's arms show needle tracks; it's made known that her captors regularly injected her with heroin.

Drink is ever present in this underground world. Vodka and other alcoholic beverages flow freely at Semyon's restaurant, and most characters are shown drinking. Nikolai drinks vodka straight from bottles. And Kirill is shown drunk enough on two occasions that Nikolai had to help him through the door of his father's restaurant. At one point, Kirill is so drunk he lays his head on Nikolai's shoe.

The boy-killer from the barbershop is pretty tipsy after he leaves a soccer game, taking with him an unfinished beer. On his way home, he stops in a graveyard to relieve himself on a tombstone, putting his beer can on top of it.

Smoking is equally prevalent. Of the main characters, only Anna stays away from cigarettes.

Other Negative Elements

Anna's uncle spits in Nikolai's face. Kirill spits on a corpse. Her uncle tells Anna that she should never have gotten together with her now ex-boyfriend because he was black. "It's not natural to mix race and race," he says. "That's why your baby died inside you."

Conclusion

Eastern Promises is an engrossing, technically well-made film—a dark and twisting story with an unexpected ending and even touches of morality. Few people are quite as they seem—a musing on relativism and the line between good and evil found in one man (Nikolai) and, by extension, every man.

Nuanced intrigue, though, can never blot out the image of Viggo Mortensen, stark naked, stabbing someone's eye with a linoleum cutter.

"What kind of rating do you give that?!" asked the moviegoer sitting next to me.

Not a very good one.

"When you consider the body count of The Departed or The Sopranos, ours is pretty darn low," director David Cronenberg told salon.com. "The difference is that I take it seriously in terms of realism, and the camera does not look away. We've had a long discussion about why I do that, but I have very good reasons. That's why the impact of those scenes goes beyond screen time."

He's right about his images cutting into your brain. But he's wrong about having very good reasons.

The Russian mafia in Eastern Promises are festooned with tattoos. They tell stories—where they've been, what they've done, what they believe in. In fact, the tagline of the film is "Every sin leaves a mark." So do movies. They mark our minds and tell stories about where we've been and what's important to us. And, while they may fade a little with time, the images and their influence never really go away. That's the real promise of Eastern Promises.

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