On its surface, Eastern Promises, the latest film from Canadian auteur David Cronenberg, could appear to be nothing more than a bit of postmodern crime noir fluff - stylishly filmed, but devoid of the deeper meaning Cronenberg devotees have come to expect. As that initial superficial layer is peeled back, however, this story about identity, family and loyalty reveals its true, beautiful, brutal nature.
After a 14-year-old Russian prostitute dies during childbirth, Anna, a midwife at a London hospital, becomes determined to reunite the orphaned baby girl with her family. Anna (a beautifully haunted Naomi Watts) discovers a diary amidst the dead mother’s personal effects, but she needs someone who speaks Russian to translate it. Her path quickly leads her to Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl is terrifyingly brilliant), who, as the monstrous head of the Vory V Zakone crime syndicate, specializes in sex trafficking while masquerading as the grandfatherly owner of an upscale Russian restaurant.
It is at Semyon’s restaurant where Anna first meets Nikolai, played with ice-cold precision by Viggo Mortensen. If you’re only familiar with Mortensen as the returned king Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings, he is virtually unrecognizable behind a military-grade buzz cut and masterful Russian accent. Nikolai is the chauffer for Semyon’s wild, psychotic son, Kirill, played with wonderful intensity by French actor Vincent Cassel.
Cronenberg wields the tight, well-paced script from Steve Knight, whose credits include the disturbing 2002 film Dirty Pretty Things, which delved into the seedy underbelly of London’s human organ black market, like a true master. Every scene is filmed with an intimate intensity rarely seen these days, particularly the violence that seems to permeate every one of his films, from early ‘80s cult classics Scanners and Videodrome to 2005’s Oscar-nominated A History of Violence (also starring Mortensen). Rather than shy away from the harsh nature of his characters, Cronenberg lingers, like when Nikolai is charged with disposing of a body, frozen inside a large freezer.
After thawing the corpse with a hair dryer, Nikolai grasps a pair of pliers and goes to work on the dead man’s fingers, clipping them with a practiced restraint, to render the body unidentifiable. Where another director might cut the scene, Cronenberg urges us to watch, to feel not only the brutality of the violence, but the consequences as well.
The infamous bathhouse scene, in which a pair of thugs attacks a nude Nikolai, underscores Cronenberg’s fascination with violence and human behavior. Instead of glorifying his protagonist in battle, Cronenberg creates a messy, uncoordinated, intense scramble for survival. Nikolai is beaten and stabbed repeatedly, viciously, and we feel every visceral blow.
Between the short, angry spurts of bloodshed, Promises questions an even more fundamental principle: who are we?
In her quest to find the baby’s family, Anna struggles to understand the Russian heritage that courses through her veins. She is thrust into a world she does not understand and can only begin to fathom, endangering not only her life, but also that of her racist Russian-born uncle, Stepan (the marvelously cast Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski). We don’t begin to understand Anna’s absolute need to find the baby’s family until Stepan, after turning down his niece’s request to translate the diary, believing the dead girl’s secrets should die with her, tells Anna that the reason her own baby died inside her was that the father was a black man.
Nikolai has an even greater crisis of self. As he stands before a mafia tribunal, we see, per Russian mob custom, the entire history of his life tattooed across his body, from the gangs he’s been a member of to what prisons he’s been incarcerated within. After all he’s been through, is he still a man? Does he have a soul? Or is he simply an accumulation of experiences and skills, a tool, to be brandished by his mafia masters?
In Eastern Promises, the horror of who we are is splayed out in front of us and it’s up to us to interpret it on our own. Cronenberg sees his job as posing difficult questions, not comforting us with cookie-cutter answers, which is something he’s been doing masterfully for over 30 years.