Promises of the Genre

Dylan Hintz
Engl 403- Film Genre
Dr. Walker

Promises of the Genre

“Forget any of this happened… stay away from people like me,” utters Nikolai Luzhin, meticulously played by Viggo Mortenson in David Cronenberg’s 2007 film, Eastern Promises. His simple words wink at the audience in a jab towards the curious compulsion to watch films of its nature; of the gangster genre. Mafia films— rife with motifs of violence, crime, power struggles and moral ambiguity— continue to attract their audience, regardless of telling relatively the same story of fatalistic rise-and-fall. While some films fall victim to clichés within the genre, Eastern Promises takes the more prominent elements and turns them on their heads, creating a familiar-but-fresh gangster story. Three specific elements are modified within the film to grant it the double status of original and familiar. The film operates as urban nightmare, represents an intimate genre styling of violence, and follows the trajectory of Nikolai’s gangster story.  As Neale says, “the elements of and conventions of a genre are always in play, rather than simply being replayed; and any generic corpus is always being expanded” (Neale 171). Though at times modified near the point of breaking convention, these three elemental streaks are still prominent enough to label the film as a solid example of the gangster genre, while the twists further whet the curiosity for its audience.

With a body count of only five, Eastern Promises may not seem to portray the typical Urban Nightmare that gangster films are known to produce, in which criminals run rampant on the streets, catching innocent bystanders in street war crossfires. An aesthetic emptiness of scenery outside the criminal headquarters cunningly maintains the distinction between urban realism and urban nightmare. The London of the film holds both “inky night-time exteriors and the kitsch exotica of Semyon’s restaurant…” each maintaining a “depopulated unfamiliarity” (Lawrenson 17). The empty exterior of Aziz’s barbershop in which the first murder occurs is in an urban business district; warm and recognizable. Comparatively, the dreary Watergate where bodies are dumped feels menacingly cold, but like Aziz’s shop contains even darker and uglier truths within. Neither place is shown to be particularly busy and feels like a self contained environment, and exist outside the public eye while being public places. This surface level depopulation builds up the menace of the crime family. Housed safely in Semyon’s restaurant, formidable doors and stoop as a barrier within the mis-en-scene, the vory y zakone is provided with a focused otherworld in which they unnoticeably pierce the lives of “normal” people. They lurk behind everyday life like an unspoken nightmare to the point where ordinary people like Anna’s uncle Stepan fear even speaking their name.

Contrary to the hidden nightmare, the violence and murders within the body count of the film occur in primarily public places. All of the main violence occurs in places with a “hard surface of gangland masculinity,” and which help to “uncover an ugly entanglement of familial tensions” (Lawrenson 17). The majority of violence is masculine and based around the theme of familial betrayal. The first murder in the barbershop feels treacherous to male security and welcome usually associated with the local.  The murder of Aziz’s son punctuates the notion that the criminal element can reach out and kill wherever desired, regardless of the mass exodus of male football fans from the Chelsea stadium. Finally, Nikolai’s setup within the bathhouse occurs in a place of trust and brotherhood—his attack observed by many older patrons of the bathhouse who avoid the nightmare as best they can. The violence of the gangster genre has been scaled down, but in correlation with the diminished scope is an increased focus and intimacy that still appeals to the genre conventions of masculine action and brutality. Aside from the true victim of the film, Tatiana, the convention of violence remains within the ranks of the gangsters, in which “the public is not really relevant to the genre” (Kaminsky 39), and instead maintains its genre focus through “a war between its two most charismatic characters, the alluringly sinister Semyon and the ruthless, ambivalent Nikolai” (Lawrenson 17). It is this war behind the scenes that depicts another example of the genre— the trajectory of the gangster.

Nikolai’s trajectory begins generically at the bottom. Maintaining his role of driver throughout the first act of the film, Nikolai discusses with Anna that he is not allowed within parties and is outside the inner circle. He is their driver, and with her in the backseat she is the only person behind him in the vory ranking. His status changes by the second act of the film as he achieves a rise to power, gaining the stars of the vory and becoming one of their own through a ceremony. In films of this genre, the right of passage is “held as a testimonial for a gangster when he has ‘made it’” (Kaminsky 37). This scene is a necessary turning point in the life of the gangster and in the power of the genre—to watch a character get past his status and come closer to being “king,” as Nikolai states at the end of the film. The typical gangster trajectory usually lends towards a fall involving the main gangster’s death. However, Nikolai lives through the end of Eastern Promises, having assailed Semyon’s throne. At the surface the trajectory is incomplete. The audience needs a decline so that they are “purged of guilt for admiring [Nikolai as a gangster] by drawing away from him as he falls” (Kaminsky 38). Cronenberg uses the character of Anna to relate with the audience and their need to purge themselves of the antisocial spirit of the gangster. In the climax of the film Nikolai has rescued the baby Christine from the hands of Kiril. In a tender moment with Anna, he shares one kiss with her, holding the baby and demonstrating his desire to be part of the ordinary life. Cronenberg contrasts this image of love and belonging to portray Nikolai’s emotional and human downfall with the final shot of the film: Nikolai sitting alone and miserable in his new position of power, with Tatiana’s grieving words echoing through his mind. Thus, Nikolai’s downfall has left an effect upon him, and the audience’s need to see a criminal trajectory is fulfilled.

Eastern Promises takes the gangland genre beyond its normal conventions, but uses familiarity to remain within the expectations of the audience. The elements of urban nightmare help to create a setting that speaks gangster while feeling local and realistic through around-the-corner locations. The violence of the film is more low-key than a typical gangster story, but maintains the masculine intimacy of the cops-and-robbers genre. Finally, Nikolai as a character faces a conventional trajectory with an unconventional ending that respects the audience’s need for a purge of antisocial enjoyment from the gangster genre. Cronenberg’s film keeps its promises of genre while twisting the rules almost to the point of breaking, carving a fresh and intriguing gangster tale.

Works Cited

Kaminsky, Stuart M. “The Individual Film: Little Cesar as Prototype.” American Film
Chicago, Illinois. Nelson-Hall, 1985, 21-42.

Lawrenson, Edward. “Written on the Body.” Sight and Sound 17, no. 11, 2007. 51.

Neale, Steve. “Questions of Genre.” Film Genre Reader III, ed Barry Keith Grant.

Austin, Texas. University of Texas Press, 2003, 160-184.

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Promises of the Genre by Dylan Hintz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.