A Pair of Films
I haven’t read nearly all the review of Eastern Promises, of course. Sampling eight or so, I have noticed that quite a few critics briefly note a similarity between David Cronenberg’s new film and his previous one, A History of Violence. There are the obvious links. Viggo Mortensen plays the lead in both, a man with a secret—or a bunch of them. Both involve crime syndicates run by families. Both contain scenes of graphic, brutal violence.
Reviewer John Beifuss calls Eastern Promises “A sort of companion piece to Cronenberg’s previous feature, ‘A History of Violence’ (2005), adding that, “‘Eastern Promises’ opens in a modest barber shop that recalls the small-town diner that was the site of unexpected brutality in ‘Violence.’” Beth Accomando comments, “In some ways, Nikolai has much in common with Mortensen’s character in A History of Violence, who hides one persona beneath another.”
J. Hoberman goes a little further in defining the parallels. “Eastern Promises is very much a companion to A History of Violence. Both are crime thrillers that allow Viggo Mortensen to play a morally ambiguous and severely divided, if not schizoid, action-hero savior; both are commissioned works that permit hired-gun Cronenberg to make a genre film that is actually something else.” (For more reviews, see Rotten Tomatoes’ page on the film.)
It would be hard to discuss the similarities between the films without giving away too much of the plot, and clearly that’s why reviewers have said so little on the subject. So I should make it very clear that I’m writing a brief analysis here, not a review. There will be major spoilers for both films. I don’t always mind spoilers for films I’m going to see, but A History of Violence and especially Eastern Promises really depend on the withholding of information. I’d urge you to see both films before reading the rest of this entry.
What I’m primarily interested in here is the extent to which the second film manages to be a mirror-image reversal of the first. It’s a remarkable formal accomplishment, I think, to have a director make two consecutive films with different plots, characters, settings, and narrational strategies that are such exact reversals of each other. Eastern Promises isn’t a sequel, yet it forms a pair with A History of Violence. It’s like those trilogies that are united by theme rather than by being parts of the same story (e.g., Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence, or Phillip Glass’s three biographical operas, Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and Akhnaton). Whether or not this pairing was intended by Cronenberg, one could easily imagine him working again in the same vein.
Basically you’ve got a central character with two sides to him, the criminal and the good. In A History of Violence, the protagonist is leading an ordinary domestic life that is threatened by a revelation of his criminal past. He barely manages to suppress the threat to his family that results when his former associates re-establish contact with him, and he can suppress it only by using more violence and revealing to his family what he had been
In Eastern Promises, the hero does the opposite. He is voluntarily leading a criminal life undercover in order to fight the Russian mafia gang he works for. By meeting and falling in love with Anna, he is given a chance to lead a normal life with her but manages to suppress his longing for that in order to continue his struggle. (Even his boss in whatever crime-fighting organization he secretly works for offers him an out, saying that the Russian embassy has requested he be taken off the case. Nikolai insists on continuing his activities, since he now has had a promotion that will allow him to penetrate to the very heart of the criminal gang he has been fighting.)
There are contrasts and parallels that encourage a comparison of the two films. The modest diner that Tom Stall runs in A History of Violence could not be more unlike the sumptuous Russian restaurant that is the front for Semyon’s vory v zakone activities. The much-lauded fight scene in the public baths in Eastern Promises is a more visceral version of a battle late in A History of Violence when Tom, about to be killed at his brother’s order, manages to kill all five of the men holding him captive. (At left, four down, one to go.)
The black, forbidding car that Nikolai drives echoes that of the vengeful thug Fogarty in A History of Violence; both glide to ominous stops on the street outside the dwelling of their presumed victims. Each of the films ends on a close view of the protagonist seated at a table: Tom fearfully yet hopefully searching the faces of his family for signs of acceptance and Nikolai sitting in the Russian restaurant he now runs, thinking in sorrow of Tatiana and presumably of his missed life with Anna. Even the meal that Tom returns home to and the one Anna’s family are having at the end are similar: roast beef and vegetables.
Ultimately the contrasts in the two films are what makes the ending of Eastern Promises even more affecting than that of A History of Violence. Tom Stall has used deceit to walk away from his violent life and make a new and normal one. By the end the revelation of the deceit has damaged that normal life considerably, but there are indications that the damage will gradually, though not wholly, fade through re-established love and trust. Nikolai, on the other hand, has gone down the far more difficult road: walking away from a potentially normal life to continue to use deceit and violence to fight the vicious organization that preys upon normal people. (When Anna’s mother warns her away from her contact with the criminals, saying “This isn’t our world. We are ordinary people,” Stepan responds that Tatiana was an ordinary person, too.)
One thing that distinguishes the films is that we never learn whether Nikolai was already a real criminal earlier in his life, one whom the British authorities successfully recruited to help them run an underground operation against the vory v zakone in London. Were his tattoos really given him in Russian prisons, or are they an elaborate disguise created in England? We don’t know if Nikolai had a normal life before and gave it up to play out this ruse or if this undercover job is his redemption for past evils.
One specific device intrigued me the first time I saw the film: the voice of Tatiana, the girl who dies early in the film giving birth. That voice is heard over at intervals, speaking passages from the diary that Anna finds in her purse and tries to get translated. What is the “source” of this voice? Against seeming logic, the voiceover becomes associated with people reading or translating the diary only fairly late in the film. The early instances occur over scenes where no one present could know the contents of the diary.
On my second viewing of the film, I took notes on the contexts in which the voice is heard, and I think this is a complete list:
First, as Anna initially opens the diary and finds the card for the restaurant; cut to her on bike heading for the restaurant.
Second, early the next evening as Anna rides her bike to the restaurant; the voice bridges the cut to Semyon drinking alone inside restaurant.
Third, during the scene of Nikolai having sex with the blonde prostitute.
Fourth, over Anna at hospital with baby Christina. Semyon comes in and says he has translated the diary—but doesn’t give the translation to her.
Fifth, shortly thereafter, Semyon leaves, and the voice resumes over a shot of Anna, upset by his implied threats. It bridges the cut to the dining room where the mother and Stepan are translating the diary. The voice of Tatiana dissolves into that of Stepan. This signals the point at which the family members finally become aware of the specific contents of the diary: that Semyon is the one who raped Tatiana and left her pregnant with Christina.
Sixth, a scene beginning with Nikolai in the restaurant alone, reading the diary. (Anna had given Nikolai the diary at the end of the previous scene, telling him to read it.) Semyon enters, gets the diary from him, and burns it.
Seventh, over a brief scene of Anna at home reading the translation of the diary. (This is immediately followed by a scene of Nikolai in his car watching Stepan go into a block of flats.) The implication is subtle, but in the most recent conversation between her and Nikolai, he has told her that she should raise Christina herself. Now perhaps she is searching the diary for evidence to justify such a decision.
Eighth, the final voiceover passage begins as Anna sits with Christina, whom she has adopted, in the garden; the voice bridges to the restaurant with Nikolai sitting alone, a bottle of vodka at his elbow. This is, I believe, the only repeated passage, being the same part as we hear in the first instance of voiceover. The passage ends, “That is why I left. To find a better life.”
This is two-edged. On the one hand, Nikolai does not have the option of leaving and finding the better life that he wishes he could have with Anna—the one we’ve just seen her leading with her family. On the other, he has the chance to save others from the fate that Tatiana suffered.
Only after the scene in which we see Nikolai reading the diary (the sixth occurrence of Tatiana’s voiceover) do we find out that he has been working against the gang—arranging for the blonde prostitute to be rescued by the police, spiriting Stepan away into hiding rather than murdering him. Yet it is not the diary’s contents that affects him and causes him to do such things. Reading the diary provides a plot point, giving him the vital clue that Semyon is Christina’s father, allowing him to tell the police how to test for DNA and convict Semyon of statutory rape.
The first four instances of the voiceover are not associated with anyone reading the diary. The last four are: Stepan translating it, Anna reading it, Nikolai reading it, and finally Nikolai apparently remembering it as he sits in place of Semyon in the restaurant. Seeing the film the first time, at the end I wondered if perhaps Tatiana’s voice becomes retrospectively linked to Nikolai, who sacrifices his own chance to happiness to continue battling the system of human trafficking that had victimized her.
Watching Eastern Promises again, I realized that the device is not that straightforward. Yet just as learning late in the film about Nikolai’s long undercover work against the vory v zakone shifts the implications of almost everything we have seen, so the resonance of the voiceover passages changes upon re-viewing. All the occurrences of it seem to lead up to the epilogue and to link our privileged access to Tatiana’s writings to our special knowledge of Nikolai’s role in so much of what has happened.
The voiceover motif has other functions. It keeps reminding us of the diary, which is crucial to the plot in several ways. It provides exposition about Tatiana’s life and about the methods used by the Russian mafia to lure girls and women into leaving their homes. Indeed, the device is typical of the narration, which remains quite objective and informative on the whole, moving between the two central characters in an even-handed fashion and even showing the other major characters when those two are not present. The voiceover becomes another means that the narration uses to inform us about the one character who disappears from the scene almost immediately.
Only at the end does the narration settle with one of the characters. We have seen Anna, finally happy in motherhood after having suffered a miscarriage shortly before the action of the plot began. The film ends with Nikolai, briefly lingering over his grim situation and allowing us to picture what his life will be like. That moment, I think, was where I came to associate Tatiana’s voiceover primarily with him.
Some reviewers have compared Eastern Promises with A History of Violence primarily in qualitative terms. Is the second film inferior to the first? As good? Better?
They’re both very good. If more films these days were as good as either, we’d complain a lot less. Still, upon viewing each a second time in preparing to write this entry, I became convinced that Eastern Promises is even better than its predecessor. A History of Violence is a relatively simple film, and it remained much as I had remembered it. Revisiting Eastern Promises only a week after my first viewing, I saw far more in it.
The character of Kirill, Semyon’s son and apparent heir, is more complex. More importantly, Nikolai’s involvement in the affairs of the family’s gang activities is hinted to be far more direct than his modest standing as a “driver” would indicate. Indeed, there is a strong suggestion dropped that Nikolai caused the murder of Soyka (the shocking throat-slitting in the barber shop that opens the film). In the scene after Kirill gives Nikolai a truckload of champagne, Nikolai talks with Semyon and explains that the murder had been committed because Soyka was “talking about” Kirill. It’s evident that Nikolai himself could have been the source of any such notions about Soyka. There are other moments when we are led to contemplate the dense weave of possible causes and effects underlying the narrative.
It’s a rich film indeed. At the beginning I cautioned that you should see it before reading this entry. If you’ve done that, now I suggest seeing it again.
[Added October 18: I'm grateful to Eric Dienstfrey, who has responded to this entry with an intriguing suggestion about the "reversal" trait I noticed in these two films: "I think complementary films exist through most of Cronenberg's career. Dead Ringers and M. Butterfly are two that come to mind, both films being about Jeremy Irons -- to reference the old Woody Allen joke -- at two with himself, either as twins, or internally as both a gay and straight individual. I also like the complement between Videodrome and The Dead Zone. In Videodrome, Woods loses control as he becomes more and more sadistic, whereas in The Dead Zone, Walken loses control as he becomes more and more heroic."]