Eastern Promises

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 09/22/07 23:59:47

"Another rigorous autopsy from Cronenberg."
5 stars (Awesome)

At first glance, it may seem out of character for director David Cronenberg — master of twisted body-consciousness films like 'The Fly,' 'Dead Ringers' and 'Crash' — to take a tour of the Russian underworld of London in his new film 'Eastern Promises.' But it doesn’t take long for this supposedly “conventional” Cronenberg outing to announce its place in his portfolio.

It begins with blood and slime, the primordial fluids of life and death, and coasts for the next 90 minutes on our unease. Though the remaining violence is sparingly parcelled out, we know we’re in a universe where live flesh has ink or a price on it, and dead flesh is subject to rude post-mortem depredations in the freezer of a restaurant.

Part of the plot’s motor (via the tight script by Steven Knight, author of Dirty Pretty Things) emerges into the film coated in both fluids — a baby born to a teenage Russian ex-pat prostitute who died in childbirth. (The film’s title refers to the way she and others like her are lured to London by the mob with promises of big things, then put to work in the sex trade.) Anna (Naomi Watts), a doctor at Trafalgar Hospital, delivers the baby and finds the girl’s diary, which contains sensitive information about various players in the local vory v zakone (“thieves-in-law”) outfit. This includes avuncular mob boss Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his impetuous, not-as-closeted-as-he-thinks son Kirill (Vincent Cassel).

In another film, Anna would be the lead character, spending perhaps five episodes of a BBC miniseries to get to the bottom of the Russian decay. Cronenberg, however, pretty much dismisses her as a necessary plot agitator — the sand in this oyster — and focuses on Kirill’s sardonic driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). In their previous film together, 2005’s A History of Violence, Cronenberg and Mortensen explored the nightside of a kind man with a dark, grisly past. Here it’s almost the reverse, as the outwardly unfeeling Nikolai develops shadings of compassion. The two movies are bookend pieces, and Mortensen makes Nikolai even more disturbing when traces of humanity sneak through his contemptuous façade — when Nikolai tells Anna “You belong in there, with nice people,” he may be thinking how dangerous it is to be so naïve about life’s underbelly, and how comforting it must be. He wouldn’t know.

As in all Cronenberg films, God (or the devil) is in the details — the way, for instance, Semyon brings out a cake for a woman’s 100th birthday party, and she pays him and the cake no mind, focusing on the accordion player — she’s not fooled by Semyon’s charm, she knows what he is. Eastern Promises is an inquiry into various kinds of scars; the whole business with the tattoos, which Russian thugs get in prison to denote where they stand in the food chain, was added to the script by Cronenberg and Mortensen, and a turning point comes when Nikolai receives his coveted star tattoos on his chest, signifying total loyalty to the vory v zakone. Long live the new flesh. The most celebrated and notorious scene, of course, involves the attempted removal of Nikolai’s tattoos by two Chechen assassins while Nikolai is clad only in a towel, and soon not even that. Leave it to Cronenberg to redefine the fight scene, so often glossed over in routine action flicks, but here lingered over to emphasize the grasping pain and effort of hand-to-hand combat.

Like Elias Koteas’ character in Crash (“Prophecy is ragged and dirty,” he said to his own tattooist, “so make it ragged and dirty”), Nikolai is an illustrated man whose body is a guidebook to a dangerous subculture. A development near the end makes him perhaps too readable, but Mortensen finishes his role here exactly as he did in A History of Violence, sitting at a dinner table and contemplating his life of brutality and what comes next. Here, though, Nikolai has rejected the trappings of civilization — a woman, a baby — to spend more time in the shadows with shadowy men.

'Eastern Promises' completes a trilogy begun with Cronenberg’s underseen 'Spider,' a trilogy dealing with family shattered by secret horrors. It is Cronenberg firing on all cylinders, probing the imperfect human machine underneath the fleshy surface, meticulously detailing his findings.

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