David Cronenberg once said: "Most Hollywood filmmaking these days is the cinema of comfort. I'm not looking to make comfortable cinema, there's enough of that around and that's the easiest and safest stuff to do. Somebody's got to do the other stuff."
In "Eastern Promises," a dark tale about the Russian mafia trafficking in drugs, sex and murder, Cronenburg does the other stuff. His film serves up a twisted morality tale that flashes a fleeting and unexpected tenderness. This one's not for the faint of heart.
"Eastern Promises" opens with blood: a graphic throat slitting with a dull razor by a mentally challenged young man, and the bloody hemorrhaging of a 14-year-old girl who dies giving birth. Both ultimately lead back to the same bloody source, a Russian crime family with ties to the Vory V Zakone.
Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is the family patriarch, a grandfatherly old man that we find cooking borscht in his posh Trans-Siberian restaurant. His son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) is a brute and often drunk. Moderating between these two family members is Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen), a chilly, impeccably dressed "driver" whose carefully groomed exterior masks a ruthless brutality. The film is taut with the threat of violence, and when it erupts, it's hand-to-hand, intimate, inelegant and unflinchingly savage.
The young girl, we discover, was forced into prostitution and drug addiction by Semyon. Raped and pregnant, she was trying to escape when she hemorrhaged and ended up in a North London hospital where Anna (Naomi Watts) works as a midwife. Anna, with Russian heritage, riding a Ural motorcycle, longs to place the child with some kind of relative. Since the girl had no identification, Anna takes the diary she finds in the girl's bag and brings it home. The diary is in Russian so she asks her Uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski) to translate. What information she gleans leads her to Semyon's restaurant. Nikolai warns Anna to stay away but her need to discover who this girl is combined with her growing attraction to Nikolai makes it impossible for Anna to keep to a safe distance.
The film's key sequence is an extremely vicious fight in which Nikolai, naked, fends off two dagger-wielding assassins in a steam bath, grabbing their weapons and plunging them again and again. Cronenberg wants us to look at Nikolai and see not just a man but also a paradox, a walking example of humanity's dual nature: good and bad, immersed in a violence so brutal it can only have come from evil, even if it's being used for justice. Mortensen plays the character so strongly the movie stops being about anything or anyone else.
The more we get to know him, the denser his mystery gets. His experiences embody the harsh truths of being a part of this underworld.
"Eastern Promises" unpeels like an onion of corruption, with double crosses and deceptions, and ordinary do-gooders (like Anna's crusty old uncle) in way over their heads. Cronenberg's craftsmanship is seductive, yet anyone waiting for a conventional resolution, or even a coherent one, will be soundly disappointed.
Anna may not have such obvious layers, but she too presents an exterior image that hides a secret of her own. Everyone in this film has one surface they want people to see as well as another one underneath. Semyon is the doting grandfather who harbors a much darker soul. And his son Kirill seems forced by the rigid codes of his mob environment to do a lot of macho posturing to hide the fact that he's gay.
The relationship between the men is complex. Nikolai keeps a watchful, protective eye on Kirill, who is hotheaded but weak. Kirill simultaneously admires and resents his baby sitter. The men's fraught rapport is further complicated because Semyon scarcely disguises his preference for the capable "driver" over his own prodigal son, initiating a ceremony where Nikolai is given his stars, tattoos the Russian gangsters use to tell the story of their lives and accomplishments.
"If you don't have tattoos, you don't exist".
The film is suitably devious, surrendering its secrets gradually, like Russian nesting dolls whose exteriors, pulled apart, reveal different figures inside. Prepare for a shot of vodka with a blood chaser.