The Thing I Like About …

Eastern Promises: the special features.

I loved Eastern Promises; it was a really good movie.  It’s not that anything was wrong with the movie.  It was that one of the special features illustrated how close to reality the events in the movie can be.

Eastern Promises is about a Russian man, Nikolai – played by Viggo Mortensen – who seems to be neck-deep in the Russian mob.  He’s covered with tattoos – tattoos given in Russian prisons that comprise the bearer’s history, and to which the mobsters give much scrutiny as they determine if Nikolai is legitimate or not.  The tattoos are a badge of honour, an identifying mark, a calling card – more meaningful than a name.

In the special features, Viggo Mortensen discusses wearing the tattoos; he had gone to a Russian restaurant during filming, to get a better feel for the dialect and the culture he was trying to portray.  He was sitting, with his sleeves rolled up, and listening on the sly to other diners’ Russian-language conversations.  He was getting a feel for the sound, for the mannerisms, for the little things that would make his character more believable.  But after several moments, he realized that the other diners had gone quiet.

At first he thought he had offended them, that they had discovered he was listening and were not interested in performing for him.  But then he looked around, and found that they were all studiously avoiding eye contact with him.  They were quiet because they had seen his tattoos – visible on his arms – and they knew it meant he was Russian mob.  They knew it meant he was listening to them for nefarious and dangerous reasons.  They were – because of his tattoos – afraid of him.  He never went out with the tattoos visible again.

We watch movies like Eastern Promises for a glimpse of something exciting and interesting, that “good” kind of dangerous, that mix of action and intrigue that seems so unrealistic.  Then people in a diner avoid talking in front of a man because they think he’s part of that “exciting” life – in real life – and suddenly the film isn’t nearly as unrealistic as we would prefer.  It turns out there are actually people who are dangerous, amoral, possibly even evil – people who run a lot more things than we would be comfortable knowing about, people who are real enough for an actor with fake tattoos to be mistaken for one of them.

The thing I like about Eastern Promises? – it’s not really just a movie.

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