The first scene in Eastern Promises involves someone getting his throat cut with very bloody results. The scene may be shocking to many, but it will come as no surprise to anyone who’s particularly familiar with the works of David Cronenberg, a director famous for bringing extremely graphic violence to the screen in new and interesting ways.
The film centers on Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) a second generation Russian immigrant in London working as a mid-wife at the local hospital. A pregnant girl shows up at the hospital going through troubled labor, she ends up dying in childbirth. Khitrova decides to track down the girl’s family in order to find a place for the newborn baby. This search leads her into the dark world of imported prostitution and sex slavery run by the Russian mafia. Among these Russian gangsters is Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortenson) who first appears to be the driver of a crime boss named Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his violent son Kirill (Vincent Cassel). Finding this dead girl’s family soon becomes complicated and these gangsters are dangerous people to deal with.
Eastern Promises was written by Steven Knight, whose most notable prior credit was the film Dirty Pretty Things. This film is somewhat similar in that both deal with immigrant minorities in London’s underground. I found Dirty Pretty Things was a work with some interesting ideas, but also that it was ultimately forgettable. I feel this script would also have been interesting but forgettable were it not for some very interesting acting and the intervention of David Cronenberg.
Cronenberg has become so famous for his disturbing body horror and gore that many people forget about one of his biggest strength, his ability to direct actors. Cronenberg was behing Christopher Walken’s brilliant performance in The Dead Zone, Jeff Goldblum’s great turn in The Fly, and Jeremy Iron’s double role in Dead Ringers that was famously snubbed by the academy. In his last movie, A History of Violence Cronenberg got an amazing performance out of Viggo Mortenson as he came off his star turning role as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Morenson is working with Cronenberg again here as the massively tattooed gangster Nikolai, and he is very strong again. His acting is subtle here, but noticeably good; his character isn’t as easy to show off with as it was on A History of Violence but I think he is just as good. Though Mortenson clearly steals the show, the acting is great from the rest of the cast as well. Naomi Watts is one of the best actresses of her generation and her work here is up to her usual high standards. Vincent Cassel is also great as the violent and disturbed young gangster Kirill, as is Armin Mueller-Stahl as his father. Jerzy Skolimowski also make a memorable appearance as Anna’s father who claims to be former KGB… but probably wasn’t.
Eastern Promises, like many Cronenberg’s last film is hard to classify. It doesn’t really fit as a thriller of horror film, as tension doesn’t really seem to be the goal here. It’s way to violent to be what many would see as a conventional drama, and it also doesn’t really feel like a crime film as the Russian Mafia feels more like a backdrop then the real point. The fact that it doesn’t easily fit in any box allows it to avoid many genre conventions and remain highly unpredictable.
Cronenberg is no longer within a horror or science fiction setting, but “the new flesh” still lives, albeit in a more realistic setting. There is a scene involving a frozen body that many of Cronenberg’s fans like me will lap up but “normal” find fairly disgusting. There’s also a scene where Viggo Mortenson gets into a violent bloody knife fight… naked. It’s a scene that, again, will be very interesting to Cronenberg fans but will make almost anyone else very uncomfortable.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t know how much there would be to enjoy here if it weren’t for Cronenberg, and the solid cast. I can’t say I found the story overly fascinating. What I did find interesting was Cronenberg’s auteur stamp, although it’s more of an evolution of the style that was established in the superior History of Violence than it is a revolution. This is certainly worth seeing for people that dig Cronenberg’s style, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with the rest of it, but Cronenberg’s style all that really makes it special.
***1/2 out of four