“Eastern Promises” may not be director David Cronenberg’s most beloved or well-known movie, but it’s a much better picture than many have given it credit for, and arguably one of the Canadian auteur’s most memorable efforts from the mid-2000s. A bloody look at tribalism and in-fighting in the heartless underworld of the Russian mob, “Eastern Promises” definitely feels like a genre picture on its surface, especially when compared to the director’s truly out-there early works like “Videodrome” and “The Brood.” But repeat viewings allow us to see that “Eastern Promises” actually possesses a more dense and rich narrative tapestry than its fairly ordinary gangland milieu suggests. As in all Cronenberg films, “Eastern Promises” presents the human body as a sort of horror show: the director remains fascinated by internal unrest manifested in an external form, and also by how physical deformity can (re)define one’s persona.
This intense focus on human physiology in Cronenberg’s film is the subject of a new video essay entitled “Eastern Promises: A Study of Bodies.” The video digs beneath the grisly surface of the director’s crime opus to examine the unusual and undeniable themes that have always made their way into his films. These include the desecration of flesh to show devotion to an institution, (in ‘Promises,’ it’s Russian gang tattoos, but the conceit itself recalls the body-morphing media worship in “Videodrome”) the unsettling overlap of violence and sexuality (see “Crash”) and the physical projection of a fractured internal self (shades of 2002’s underrated “Spider” here). There’s also a neat dissection of the movie’s undeniable centerpiece: the infamous shower throw-down, which is surely one of the most immediate and uncomfortably intimate fight scenes ever committed to film.
The narrator seems to concede that Cronenberg is not only making an outright genre movie on purpose, but also using the gangster picture’s familiar framework as a sort of springboard for his own fetishes and obsessions. It wouldn’t be the first time: the director’s remake of “The Fly” is a morbid, tragic twist on the traditional creature feature and his Stephen King adaptation “The Dead Zone” is unlike any other supernatural thriller I’ve ever seen. It’s a fun bit of trivia for Cronenberg junkies and may hopefully inspire some curious viewers to check out “Eastern Promises” if they haven’t already. In the words of Max Renn, “long live the new flesh.”
Relive some of “Eastern Promises” most shocking moments and watch the video here: