In Eastern Promises, director David Cronenberg delves into the crime saga and “people who live in a state of perpetual transgression.” That this is his interest level is hardly surprising, as the 2007 film works not so much as a plot or a story but more as a scientific investigation of yet another sealed-off world.
It’s tempting to suggest that Eastern Promises is one of Cronenberg’s more straightforward movies. In many ways, it is. Like A History of Violence, there is a sense of routine. But like that 2005 excursion, which also paired the filmmaker with actor Viggo Mortensen, something lurks beneath the surface.
Eastern Promises opens with two related, bloody events and casts midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) into the world of the Russian mafia. She has come into possession of the diary of a young teenager who dies in childbirth and she wants to have it translated. She follows a clue to a restaurant, where she encounters Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). He agrees to help, but his interest is unsettling.
Anna comes to terms with the fact that not everything Semyon is up to is moral and has her uncle (Jerzy Skolimowski) help with the translation, but it’s too late. The Russians have their claws in and she’s thrust into a world of violence, suspicion and horror. Mortensen’s Nikolai is a driver for Semyon’s organization and a companion to Kirill (Vincent Cassel), Semyon’s violent son.
Watts’ Anna makes for a compelling access point because she never quite sees all the way in. She reacts with the fright of an “ordinary person.” She wants to do the right thing and takes great risks to care for the deceased teen’s baby. Her uncle seems aware of the risks. He was former KGB. He knows men like Semyon. He knows what they’re capable of.
Cronenberg peels back the tattooed skin and shows the audience the inner workings of Semyon’s mob. There are tangles. Kirill is a creep who wants to ensure Nikolai isn’t a “queer,” so he makes sure he partakes in a prostitute in front of him. There are rules in this banished culture, rules about men that virile Russians still abide in the heart of feeble London.
Eastern Promises features a screenplay by Steve Knight, but Cronenberg’s interests and influences are clear. The cinematography by stalwart Peter Suschitzky sweeps through the underbelly in a series of dark, drained shots. He masterfully captures the astonishing fight scene, finding ruthless angles and leaving the hothouse lens where it needs to be.
The scene is integral and a wonder of crime cinema, yet Cronenberg’s usual detachment reigns and it is almost scientific. The bloodshed, violence and nudity crash in wondrous ways, with Mortensen’s tattooed soldier a clean slate of primal survival instincts. It is what he is capable of, what he can do.
Cronenberg’s interest in what humans do when pushed against the proverbial wall has long been a theme and the pushback comes when characters either retreat inside self-delusions or morph into aggressive archetypes. Eastern Promises affirms the latter, but the former delicately laps at the boundary.
The level of self-delusion in this picture is borne out of necessity and the cool shrewdness of the lead characters appeals to somewhat of a “normal” approach. The thread of Darwinian amorality at the core of A History of Violence lingers, but love – maternal and ancestral, at least – plays a curious role in Eastern Promises.
This is an intimate, human piece from Cronenberg. All his films have spent similar currency and this outing is as aligned with the outer manifestation of inner workings as The Brood and eXistenZ. The layers have been torn away and the ecosystem inside, laid bare against London fog, is terrifying and utterly fascinating.