Monday, 4 January 2016

Crime Week: Eastern Promises (Gangsters)

The life of a gangster is a rough one. Most gangsters are products of unfortunate social circumstances rather than out of any choice. When one strips away the glamour, the fine dining and nice suits, they will find underneath only a bleak world of dishonour and greed. It is a world where one faces relentless paranoia. Every day could be their last. Nobody can be trusted (at least not consistently), and the slightest mistake could mean either arrest by the authorities or execution by other gangsters. It is a world where at any moment your best friend can turn on you when it becomes convenient (or if someone else pays them). This is not the kind of world any human being should have to live in.

Yet Hollywood has a long-standing fascination with the lives of gangsters, an interest that extends as far back as the 1920's. Prior to the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code, gangster films (known then as "male action films") were extremely popular. These films, which included several iconic titles such as Scarface, Little Ceasar, and The Public Enemy, were based on an established formula.

Usually they centred around a lower-class young man who aspires to climb the social ladder and manages to find fame and fortune through crime only for it to come crashing down on top of them. This formula of the audience relating to the gangster but also experiencing satisfaction on seeing him die at the end, was used in an attempt to refute the Production Code. By having the gangster die at the end, Studios argued that there was a moral lesson that crime doesn't pay. This ultimately failed to please the censors (who still argued that the audience was expected to relate to the gangster).

The enforcement of the Production Code in 1934 (which explicitly forbids criminals being sympathetic) brought an end to the Pre-Code gangster films, but the genre has continued to live on, with the same formula mostly unchanged beyond a few details (the gangster does not actually have to die at the end, for example, though there is still some form of comeuppance for them). Through later successes such as The Godfather Hollywood has continued to show its curious fascination with the lives of old-fashioned gangsters, but these gangsters are a dying breed. Society has changed, and with it, so has crime. The days of the Tommy Gun-wielding men in suits are over. Few films show this better than David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises.

While Eastern Promises does not perfectly conform to the formula of the classical gangster film (though it remains a great example of Hollywood's interest in the subject) it does address a lot of issues relevant to those old gangsters. Eastern Promises sets the action in the present day, rather than the 1940's, an era more commonly associated with gangsters. This allows a glimpse not only into the rough life of a gangster and those it affects, but also shows what happened to the old gangsters, and how they have to change with society in order to survive.

When the central character of Anna (Naomi Watts) is first introduced, it is obvious that she is a woman adapted to living in Modern London. She was born to Russian parents but is very much an English woman. She is educated, speaks English fluently with only a limited understanding of her parents' language, and even drives around on a fancy motorcycle. This is contrasted by her Uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski), an elderly man who has obviously struggled to adjust to a different world, this is shown on multiple occasions. The most notable of these is his blatantly racist claim that Anna's baby miscarried because she was dating a black man, a statement she understandably finds offensive. Stepan likely did not mean any harm by this remark, he simply does not understand better, unlike his niece who has grown up in a more tolerant society. Exchanges like this serve to set up the tension between old and new that recurs throughout the film.

It is by total chance that Anna is pulled into the world of organized crime. She happens to be on duty when Tatiana (Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse) is brought into the hospital and dies on the operating table, and all she meant to do was identify the teenage girl's family to notify them and find someone to look after the baby. It is also this same tension between old and new that unwittingly leads Anna to the gangsters. She initially wants to get Stepan to translate the diary, but he simply scolds her for "robbing the bodies of the dead." Anna casually states that nurses do in fact take things from dead patients, but Stepan, rooted in an older system of morals, merely criticizes her for doing so. This in turn leads her to conduct her own investigation that ends up leading to her encounter with Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl).

Had Stepan agreed sooner, the translation would have revealed everything about the Tatiana's involvement with the Russian mafia. The diary, which was not known to the gangsters at the time, could have then been handed over to the police, who would have used it as evidence to convict Semyon without Anna ever having to get involved. Because of the tension between these two generations, Anna has no choice but to question Semyon, unwittingly telling him about the journal and endangering herself in the process, beginning her involvement with the gangsters. Anna is cautious about trusting Semyon, but she is being pulled into the world of the gangsters.

Semyon himself seems like a decent man when he is first introduced. He acts like a kindly grandfather, being polite, showing Anna around his fancy restaurant and letting her try his borscht (a Ukrainian recipe for beet soup). He also appears to be a family man, interacting cheerfully with relatives and giving a little girl advice on how to play the violin. This is the glamorous side of being involved with crime, much like how Don Corleone still cared about his family and lived in luxury while also ordering people assassinated. Semyon is a very old-fashioned mobster of the kind that is slowly dying out. He bears the appearance of a gentleman, which conceal his true nature as a murderer and a paedophile.

Semyon's old-fashioned nature is contrasted by his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel), a young man who has obviously grown up in a life of crime. Much like the contrast between Anna and Stepan, Kirill is obviously much more modern than his father. Kirill ditches the old-fashioned suit in favor of a leather jacket, and is hardly subtle about his illegal activity. When he sees the body of an old friend that he claims was like a brother to him, he is only able to joke about it. Kirill spends much of the film taking the criminal life for granted, with his excessive drinking and joking. Where Semyon uses a grandfatherly image to conceal his true nature, Kirill openly brags about it.

Ironically, Kirill ultimately proves to be much more moral than Semyon. Semyon is in the end a selfish businessman. He very coldly destroys evidence of his illegal activities. While he does seem to have some concern about his family, he has no issues with betraying friends. When fellow mobster Azim (Mina E. Mina) to him asking for Kirill's body, Semyon casually agrees. He then goes on to confront his driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), gives im tattoos that mark acceptance in the gang, and then sets him up to be murdered instead.

Kirill often jokes about killing, and is even implied to have paid for another mobster to be killed, but he does little in this regard until the very end, when he steals Tatiana's baby. This is obviously a crime of passion, as there is no practical need for the child to die, but when faced with actually killing the infant himself, Kirill breaks down. He tries to plead with himself to avoid drowning the baby as though he has no choice. It is clear that he is not thinking straight, but he has some form of ethical code. It is also Nikolai who finally talks Kirill out of it. The two men have interacted frequently throughout the film, and it is their friendship that finally brings Kirill around. This would suggest that the only reason Kirill has been so rough is because of his criminal upbringing, and he would not have been so bad under different circumstances.

Semyon is clinging to a lifestyle that no longer has a place in society. Like Stepan, Semyon displays a variety of old-fashioned social values which include being vocally homophobic. Kirill tries to maintain some of these same ideas, but it is more like he has been brainwashed than anything else, as is evidenced when he complains about the police "stealing" his women after being shown to have no issues hiring prostitutes. At one point, he even feels the need to press Nikolai into having sex with a woman to prove that he is not "Queer." The mere fact that Kirill needs to raise such a point at all suggests a level of insecurity. It could mean that he is himself a homosexual and does not want to admit it, but it could also mean that there is a small part of him that realizes (if subconsciously) these values are becoming obsolete.

So embedded in these old values is Semyon that it is not hard for someone to pass as a fellow gangster. Over the course of the entire film, there is not a single moment where Nikolai is suspected of being an undercover cop, as he has done such an effective job maintaining the image of an old-fashioned gangster (Semyon does try to kill him near the end, but for entirely unrelated reasons). Semyon easily trusts Nikolai to do various tasks, including retrieving the diary (an act which gives Nikolai evidence for a conviction). In that sense, Semyon's own refusal to change with the world around him is his undoing. This change is completed near the end of the film, when Nikolai and Kirill decide that Semyon has gone too far, with Nikolai telling his friend "We're the bosses now." Presumably, under Kirill's leadership, the mafia becomes reorganized to fit better in a modern world.


  1. Excellent post. This is one of my top 5 favorite films of all times. I like that it feels like a different gangster movie, and gives us such a strong female lead in Anna.

  2. Excellent review and this is a great film that should be known better. I love the strong female lead and Vigoo Mortensen

  3. I haven't seen this one. I've heard great things about it, though. I need to check it out.