With A History of Violence, David Cronenberg moved into the mainstream film community. With Cronenberg’s latest film, Eastern Promises, he has finally cemented himself as not just a b-movie horror director but as a true genius of cinema. Eastern Promises is both an atypical mafia movie and an atypical Cronenberg film: zero gunplay, little in the way of violence and a set in the dark corners of London, England.
The film tells the story of two wildly different characters: Anna (Naomi Watts) is an innocent midwife dragged into the murderous world of the Russian mafia when a young 14-year-old girl named Tatiana comes into her hospital and gives birth to a baby girl, dying soon after. Finding a small card for a restaurant in the young girl’s diary, Anna goes to get the diary translated from a Russian cook—and runs into the hard body driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) and his bug-eyed lush of a captain Kirill (Vincent Cassel). From there, the story branches off into two directions: Anna’s quest for an answer to Tatiana’s death and Nikolai’s quest for acceptance into the mafia that is now his home. The intersections between the two stories make up some of the most exciting and tense parts throughout the movie.
Throughout the film, narration is provided by the character Tatiana and reveals the copious tragedies that led up to her death. In a fragile, quavering voice, she tells the story of eking out an existence in the Russian countryside, immigrating to London, being taken advantage of by a callous group of men who use her body to slake their lusts and the eventual pregnancy that led to her death. Although she does die at the beginning of the film, she ends up being the most important character in the movie. Her story is the crux of the plot and while at the beginning it seems like nothing more than a start point for something larger, it provides the main thrust for all subsequent events in the film.
Of special note is Mortensen’s performance in the film. There is a frightening duality to Nikolai’s character and Mortensen pulls it off handily. Carefully balancing between playing the emigre driver with a heart of flint, Mortensen shows a vulnerable side to the man who can so casually strip a body clean of any identifying marks and brutally beat a man to death with his own two fists. The most genius scene in the entire film is the climax; a fight in a steam house where Viggo Mortensen battles two attackers completely in the buff. Yes, Viggo Mortensen fights completely naked. It shows a real visual panache and to describe it in any more detail would be to spoil one of the greatest action scenes in any mafia film.
Famous for his gross-out pictures like Videodrome, Shivers, and Naked Lunch, Eastern Promises is starkly different from Cronenberg’s previous work. Unlike the grungy and industrial landscapes of previous films, the scenery is beautiful and varied; from the stark antiseptics of the hospital to the dark lacquered browns and reds of the Russian Mafia’s restaurant, the colour palette of the film just shines. The film’s score is understated, a surprising and pleasant choice for the movie. Cronenberg has always been skilled at shooting violence and that shows forcefully in the few moments of carnage throughout the film. Each moment of violence comes at just the perfect time, short and sweet—the camera doesn’t flinch at the attacks and lets you see the horrible gory details and consequences of each brutally violent attack.
Eastern Promises is a fascinating film, one that doesn’t attempt to tell a moral tale or try to beat you over the head with a simplistic story. The movie ends ambivalently, and the last scene is one that stays with you. Eastern Promises proves Cronenberg has finally shown his skill at making movies to the majority film market. Hopefully, he’ll no longer be known as “the dude who makes those creepy b-movies” and finally given the credit he so richly deserves.