Given that “Eastern Promises” is a David Cronenberg film, one shouldn’t be entirely surprised that it opens with a vicious throat slashing and a fourteen year old girl hemorrhaging in a drug store. The girl in question dies soon after while giving birth to a baby girl under the care of midwife Anna (Naomi Watts, “King Kong”). In an attempt to reunite the baby with her family, Anna has the girl’s diary translated, the contents of which get her embroiled in the affairs of the Russian mafia.
The mafia here refers to the Vory V Zakone crime syndicate, run by the grandfatherly Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl, “Shine”) along with his effete son Kirill (Vincent Cassel, “Derailed”) and his mysterious driver/enforcer Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen, “A History of Violence”) out of an upscale Russian restaurant in London. As Anna persists in her efforts to uncover the truth behind the girl’s death, the true nature of Semyon’s criminal activities becomes apparent; something that he’s very interested in keeping quiet.
As an icon of body-horror, Cronenberg’s trademark has always been presenting his violence in the ickiest way possible. His films have never been as outright violent as those of his contemporaries like Wes Craven and John Carpenter, but they manage to get under your skin much more effectively. His films have always dealt with transgression, both physical and sexual, rather than violation and mutilation. And as such, they are thematically more difficult to absorb and visually more uncomfortable that the more run-of-the-mill horror movies. The same has held true for his recent mainstream works.
In “A History of Violence,” Cronenberg took the basic vigilante/urban avenger story and turned it into a withering study of identity and marital trust. With “Eastern Promises,” he takes the standard gangster formula and reconstitutes it as a mild study of the seedier side of the immigrant micro-communities within London garnished with heavy doses of thinly veiled homoeroticism. Every time Kirill and Nikolai are together, regardless of the situation, Kirill just seems way too enthusiastic about being in close physical contact. Even the aforementioned opening throat slashing is a fallout of Kirill being ridiculed by his rivals for his behavior. All that tension comes to a head in a spectacular, balls-out (literally) brawl between Nikolai and a couple of knife wielding Chechen hitmen in a public bath house. This is one of the most brutal and savage displays of orchestrated fisticuffs I’ve seen in a film in quite some time.
As with “3:10 to Yuma,” “Eastern Promises” is a film that focuses more on the characters than the story within which they operate. And once again, the actors do a bang-up job. Steadily building his r’sum’ after his break-out role in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Mortensen is perfect as the enigmatic Nikolai. He begins as a stereotypical silent enforcer, but gradually reveals his character’s depth in measured pieces. As the unhinged Kirill, Cassel is suitably fidgety and enunciates his violent mood swings without overreaching the bounds of credibility. Mueller-Stahl is chillingly effective as the mafia Don who nonchalantly orders the deaths of his enemies with one hand while calmly stirring a pot of borscht with the other. There’s something about his steel-grey eyes and hoarse whisper of a voice that lets you know that he’s up to no good. Watts is perhaps the weakest of the bunch. She imbues Anna with a healthy emotional foundation, but the earnestness with which she pursues finding the baby’s background is a bit hard to swallow.
The film’s main weakness is that the plot is too straight forward. Being that this is a Cronenberg film, one would expect something out of left field assembled from standard parts. There’s a great deal of that sort of material to work with here, but the film does not make effective enough use of it all. In particular, the final few minutes feels like Cronenberg is just trying to tie up some loose ends as efficiently as possible. The result is an open ended conclusion not unlike that of “A History of Violence.” But, while that film’s ending left you unsettled, this one just leaves you saying ‘That’s it?’ There’s also the all too familiar “Godfather”-esque trappings of the crime family dynamic here. Semyon’s Vitto trusts outsider Nikoli’s Tom over his wild son Kirill’s Sonny. The whole affair just feels like Cronenberg was trying to be the straight man and succeeded to a fault. Still, “Eastern Promises” is an effective little thriller with strong performances and enough off-kilter moments to keep its chin above the other denizens of this genre.
David Cronenberg (director) / Steven Knight (screenplay)
CAST: Naomi Watts … Anna
Sin’ad Cusack … Helen
Jerzy Skolimowski … Stepan
Viggo Mortensen … Nikolai
Vincent Cassel … Kirill
Armin Mueller-Stahl … Semyon