There's a moment near the end of Eastern Promises where a newborn infant is in danger of being tossed into the Thames. It's a casual scene with little buildup or fanfare, and yet it carries more suspense and queasy dread than nearly any thriller released this year. And it's not because of the acts of violence that preceded it, but rather because David Cronenberg is an unsafe director. Building upon his 30-year career of unnerving audiences, Cronenberg convinces you that he'd happily pitch the little tyke to its death if it served his film's purposes.
Like the film's steely-eyed Russian mobster Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen), Cronenberg plays his cards close to his chest, exercising a clinical disinterest in the acts of primal fear he trades in. The promise of violence is always there. And when it hits, it's always ugly. There's a finely tuned sense of morality at play, but you're never quite sure on which side of the line the director or Mortensen's character will fall. This is what makes the deceptively generic Eastern Promises a compelling bookend to the pair's last movie, A History of Violence. But unlike that film's brilliant iconic deconstruction, the more conventional Promises gets most of its mileage from a chilly atmosphere of dread, its subtle examination of exile and less-than-subtle homoerotic subtext.
When a 14-year-old prostitute dies while delivering her baby, London midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) vows to track down her family. Her only clue is the dead girl's diary, written in Russian, and a business card for a posh Russian social club left inside. So, as Anna's elderly uncle sets about translating the journal, she meets with Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the club's sinister owner, hoping to learn more. What she doesn't realize is that Semyon is actually the boss of the vory v zakone a murderous Soviet mob that trades in child prostitution and other nefarious deeds. He wants the diary, he says, because it implicates his ne'er-do-well son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel). But Anna, fearing the newborn will end up lost in foster care, will only trade the diary for information about the girl's family. Her naively brash confrontation with the underworld attracts the interest of Kirill's driver and right-hand man, Nikolai, who makes small gestures of friendliness. Morally ambiguous but obviously lethal, both Anna and the audience are unsure of his motivations. Is this mysterious thug a sympathetic ally, a goon on the make, or someone scheming to use her for plans of his own?
Though screenwriter Steven Knight presents a straightforward narrative, Cronenberg constructs a psychological spider web of human monstrosity that both elevates and subverts Eastern Promises' B-movie contrivances. Returning to themes of identity, the filmmaker presents a world where pretext is necessary for survival and repression is a vital component of human identity. And like the mutilated bodies that bob to the surface of the Thames, we are wary of what lies beneath the film's ambiguous struggle between innocence and corruption.
Cronenberg's typically lurid displays of violence are also displayed here. Just as A History of Violence climaxed with an impressively brutal confrontation, Eastern Promises ends its second act with a ferocious and stunningly choreographed bathhouse battle with a stark-naked Mortensen. It's a bravura moment of filmmaking in which the director's preoccupation with the vulnerabilities of the human body dovetails with the homoerotic underpinnings of man-on-man violence.
But it's Cronenberg's newly found muse, Viggo Mortensen, who provides the film's dramatic center and untidy moral compass. With a sense of gravity that locks you into his orbit, the actor presents a fiercely complicated character who is simultaneously world-weary, morbidly funny, hyper-alert, and lethal. Approaching 50, the ever-evolving actor has honed his leading man status into something as sharp and sculpted as his body and face. And in a cast filled with Europeans, he's also the most convincingly Russian.
Though Cassel hurls himself into the role of a sexually repressed emotional wreck, he can't submerge his French roots. Meanwhile, Mueller-Stahl quietly chews the scenery but never finds Semyon's Soviet soul. Tragically, the lovely and talented Naomi Watts is relegated to a thanklessly Hitchcockian heroine: crisply blond, generically righteous and disappointingly chaste. Considering the sexual sparks that flew between Mortensen and costar Maria Bello in A History of Violence, you can't help but feel a little cheated.
As slick as it is, however, Eastern Promises, for all Cronenberg's brilliantly constructed trappings, can't escape the simplicity of its story and its rushed anticlimactic third act.
Indeed, the film exploits its Christmastime setting to finish off with a few highly contrived and inelegant minor miracles. As a cloistered character study, the director adds some delicious subtext to the gangster drama but in the final count, the film leaves you hungry for something meatier.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.