Movies are hard to make. Story telling is hard and sometimes it can falter. I think that Eastern Promises is an example of this. Let me qualify that by saying that if the goal of this film had been different, if it had shifted its focus somewhere along the line then it could have been really great. As it was, it had moments that achieved something real and Viggo Mortensen threw in a performance both hard and fast hidden under a polished veneer of ambiguity.
I think the foundation of this film was its violence. The defining scene finds a naked Mortensen taking a beating in a Russian bathhouse. In the end he prevails, brutally killing a pair of Ruffian gangsters in an act lacking any sort of superhuman quality so often found in the mortal combat of cinema. The killing is stark. It lacks any romanticism which is, these days, rarer and rarer. It is not beautiful or repulsive. It simply is. And this is unique.
Where I parted ways with this story was in the separate characterizations of Naomi Watts‘ character and Viggo’s character. I substitute “characterization” here for “development” because frankly, there was little. Naomi Watts, our main character, is stagnant, not necessarily uninteresting, but superficial and unchanging. Mortensen as, what turns out to be an undercover police officer posing as a Russian mafioso has the potential to be much more interesting, much more prepared for development, and yet there is none. Towards the end of the film we learn the truth about his character, but it’s a truth we see coming, and it’s a truth that doesn’t unlock any greater mystery. If anything, it pushes the mystery of the film deeper. That mystery being, what exactly is this film about? Is it about female prostitution and slavery? If so the focus shifts too much to state anything other than, “it’s bad.” Is it a Romeo & Juliet love story between a Russian Undercover Cop/Mobster and a London Obstetrician? If so, that’s just uninteresting. Is it a vessel by which Cronenberg can reestablish himself as the king of non-CG violence and effects? If so…well…eh, whatever.
To sum, yes, there seems to be something there. It’s something dark and it’s something that makes you want to know more. However, once you start searching, once you peel back a layer or two you see that, well, maybe that’s all there was, and if you ask me, that’s just not good enough anymore.