Streaming Review

Eastern review – Polish thriller makes a potent cocktail of tradition and modernity

Piotr Adamski's tightly wound cat and mouse drama balances a well-observed social conscience with a flair for surreal thrills

For a film that mostly traffics in some of the oldest tropes in fiction, from family blood feuds to tragic unavoidable fates to parents having to choose between their sons and daughters, one of the most impressive things about Piotr Adamski’s Eastern is how fresh it feels. It takes a morality play that would be right at home in a medieval or even ancient Greek theatre and, through its unflinching examination of male entitlement and the strangeness of gated communities, gives it a distinctly 2020 sheen.

Running at a slim 78 minutes, Eastern doesn’t bog itself down with exposition, but the skeleton of its plot revolves around a long-standing and deeply ritualistic conflict between two suburban families, the Kowalskis and the Novaks. They’re stuck in an eternal cycle of killing, each murder avenged by the next, all overseen by a strict honour code. We’re first introduced to this feud as teen girl Klara Kowalski (Paulina Krzyzanska) hunts down a Novak son in the woods, shooting him in the head and leaving his body for show.

From there, Novak daughter Ewa (Maja Pankiewicz) is assigned to retaliate against Klara, and the chase is on. Though there are some thrilling set-pieces, this hunt is hardly all-action, the girls stalking each other through town in a careful, considered manner. With its deadpan approach to very high stakes, Eastern is often reminiscent of the works of Yorgos Lanthimos, especially Dogtooth and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, creating an uneasy atmosphere that draws you in ever deeper.

There are touches of the surreal, too, from the relatively subtle (plates of cigarettes being passed around at a funeral) to the wildly outlandish (a shootout in the middle of a zoo), and the effect is a kind of woozy unpredictability that lends Eastern a power to surprise without ever pulling you out of its world. It helps that the toxic masculinity that fuels of a lot of the plot is so well-observed and grounded. The Novak father doesn’t hesitate to risk his daughter’s life to avenge his son’s (while taking a back seat himself), and spurned men throughout the film repeatedly attempt to come back to haunt Klara and Ewa.

The birth of a son is celebrated by a car full of men driving around firing machine guns, and there’s an unshakeable American-ness to proceedings as bullets whizz over perfectly groomed lawns. Adamski adds to this feeling with a Morricone-esque soundtrack that puts you in mind of a western gunslinger’s trek through the Mexican desert, which helps to explain the otherwise rather unintuitive title.

The bruised pride and patriarchal honour system at the heart of Eastern is shown as a symptom of both unchallenged casual misogyny and the stifling boredom of suburbia, creating a potent and poisonous cocktail that results in “civilised” people going murderously mad. Adamski holds up a mirror to Polish modernity and finds an ugly reflection that, for all its absurdity, rings true in a frightening manner, yet never forgets to balance this social commentary with a fantastically exciting cat and mouse thriller.

Eastern is now streaming on Curzon Home Cinema.

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