I've said it before and hope to again: David Cronenberg is the most provocative, original, and consistently excellent North American director of his generation. From Videodrome (1983) through A History of Violence (2005), neither Scorsese nor Spielberg, and not even David Lynch, has enjoyed a comparable run.
A rhapsodic movie directed with considerable formal intelligence and brooding power from an original screenplay by Steven Knight, Eastern Promises is very much a companion to A History of Violence. Both are crime thrillers that allow Viggo Mortensen to play a morally ambiguous and severely divided, if not schizoid, action-hero savior; both are commissioned works that permit hired-gun Cronenberg to make a genre film that is actually something else.
Graphic but never gratuitous in its violence, Eastern Promises opens on a rainy December eve with a brutal gangland murder in a London barber shop and unfolds mainly in a demimonde of Russian émigré thugs and whoremasters. Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife in a central London hospital, delivers a baby as the mother, a 14-year-old prostitute named Tatiana, dies in childbirth. Half-Russian herself, Anna filches the girl's diary, hoping to discover who she is, and asks her irascibly inebriated uncle (Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski) to translate. "Do you always rob the bodies of the dead?" he asks in a question that will hang over the rest of the movie.
A business card found in the diary brings Anna to the Trans-Siberian restaurant, administered by the grandfatherly Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). That this red and gold Nutcracker wonderland turns out to be the headquarters for the London branch of the Gulag-spawned criminal fraternity vory v zakone ("thieves in law") is the least of the movie's surprises. In her attempt to fathom the origins of the orphan to whom she's given the seasonal name Christina, Anna is continually bamboozled by the Trans-Siberians, a tribe whose every pleasantry carries a threat. "This isn't our world — we are ordinary people," her anxious mother (Sinead Cusack) warns her.
As usual in Cronenberg, the ordinary is severely contested terrain. However naive and depressed Anna appears, she is on a serious — and seriously deranged — quest. She's lost a baby through miscarriage and wants another one: Tatiana's. The means by which this might be achieved are at the heart of the movie and also its strangeness.
Cronenberg's two previous works Spider and A History of Violence have been murderous family dramas; Eastern Promises continues this trend. Mueller-Stahl may be perfunctory in the role of the Russian paterfamilias, but Vincent Cassel literally flings himself into the role of his wastrel son, Kirill, particularly in the company of the movie's most compelling presence, the crime family's chauffeur, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). Here is the movie's love story; in fact, the coupling of Kirill and Nikolai has the potential to fulfill Anna's dream. Hair slicked back, eyes hidden behind wraparound shades, Mortensen is even more electrifying as Nikolai than in his History of Violence roles; the actor speaks Russian as if he knows what he's saying, and his world-weary strut is at least as eloquent. Nikolai is a superbly complicated character — dark, diffident, cynical, hyperalert, and tough enough to humorously stub out a cigarette on his tongue.
Nikolai is not only the family driver but its mortician: He and Kirill retrieve a body from the killer's freezer. Nikolai softens the corpse with an electric hair dryer. "OK, now I'm going to do his teeth and cut off his fingers," he informs his comrades. "You might want to leave room." They do, and you might wish to as well, although Cronenberg ensures that we stay — at least for a few beats.
Eastern Promises is a masterful mood piece with a surplus of atmosphere. Intermittently excerpted in voice-over, Tatiana's diary is the most awkward element in Knight's otherwise impeccable screenplay. Everything else is fluid. Blood flows; rain is near-constant. Corpses are tossed into the Thames, but secrets keep bobbing to the surface. Late in the movie, Eastern Promises' homoerotic subtext bursts its banks and all but floods the screen in a steamy public bathhouse with an extraordinary action sequence that must have taken a week to film.
According to the movie's characters, the world is populated by angels, devils, and human wolves. Eastern Promises suggests a naturalized version of the recent Russian horror flick Night Watch. The vory v zakone are like a plague of vampires — governed by arcane laws and fearful superstitions. "You pronounced the name of my father," Kirill shrieks when confronted by an angry Anna.
Deceptively generic, Eastern Promises features Cronenberg's most unambiguous monster and straightforward narrative in years; the movie is a cosmic struggle between good and evil. But it's also an elaborate game that's played out in a fallen world filled with subterfuge and delicately limned with the pain of exile. "I need to know who you are," Anna urgently begs Nikolai in the movie's haunting penultimate scene. Is our Nikolai an angel, or has Anna made a deal with the devil? And suppose that amounts to the same thing? As the sardonic Nikolai might say: "What does it matter?"