A subterranean favorite best known for "body horror" flicks (They Came From Within), coal-black comedies (The Brood), squishy remakes (The Fly), and outré exercises (Crash — the car-wreck sex-cult movie, not the platitude-packed Oscar winner), the superb Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg went mainstream a couple of years ago with A History of Violence. A director-for-hire studio product, the film boasted Cronenberg's biggest budget ever and marked his first film set in the United States since 1983's The Dead Zone. But as mainstream entertainment, A History of Violence was a bit of a Trojan horse. It honored Hollywood convention but only in the service of interrogating it.
On the surface, Cronenberg's Eastern Promises is an aesthetic sequel to A History of Violence. Both films open with bloody, unsettling pre-credit sequences. Both cast Viggo Mortensen as an outwardly calm man capable of great violence and pair him with a striking blonde (Maria Bello in Violence, Naomi Watts in Eastern Promises). And both films chart the disruptive intersection of a seedy criminal underworld and middle-class domestic normalcy.
But where Violence only seemed old-fashioned, Eastern Promises really is. Emotionally and morally, A History of Violence left the viewer in an uncertain, unsettling place. Eastern Promises' denouement is more abrupt and less tidy, but it sets the moral world in order in the manner Hollywood films are expected to.
But if Eastern Promises is a less ambitious film than is the norm for Cronenberg, it's still a fine one. A filmmaker of great technical skill and visual economy, Cronenberg hooks the viewer from the beginning with a crisp opening sequence that sets the entire plot in motion with two deaths and a birth. You can further sense his sure hand with the way key bits of back story are parceled out.
Eastern Promises was written by Steven Knight and covers the same London-immigrant-underworld milieu as his Dirty Pretty Things. Here, Watts plays Anna, a midwife of mixed British and Russian ancestry who pockets the diary of a hemorrhaging, unidentified 14-year-old who dies while giving birth. Attempting to translate the diary in order to find the newborn's family, Anna is pulled into the world of the London-based Russian mob, led by menacing restaurateur Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his weak, erratic son Kirill (Vincent Cassel). Kirill's mysterious driver/bodyguard Nikolai (Mortensen) takes a protective interest in Anna.
Mortensen's Nikolai is a classic screen creation. A brooding, mysterious, and dangerous figure, Nikolai's body is covered in prison tattoos that are markers of experience within the Russian mob. These tattoos take on a key narrative role when they're used by a couple of revenge-seeking Chechens to (mis)identify Nikolai in a bathhouse. The ensuing savage, two-on-one knife attack is the film's centerpiece, with Mortensen's full nudity ratcheting up the vulnerability and queasiness of the scene.
Though Mortensen's Nikolai is iconic, Watts also functions as part of the visual design, seen often riding a motorcycle through the London streets in a constellation of black — jacket, boots, helmet, sunglasses — broken up by blond hair and tight blue jeans.
If this visually striking, expertly directed film falls short of Cronenberg's usual standards, it's because of a script that's too conventional, something underscored by a key revelation about Nikolai's motivation that suggests a lesser, more procedurally oriented crime film than what Eastern Promises strives to be.
Opening Friday, September 21st