Eastern Promises begins with uncanny images of birth and death, equally raw and bloody. And if any doubts remain about its being a David Cronenberg movie, a graphic body-disposal scene (“You might want to leave now,” a character suggests, and some viewers might regret not following his advice) that takes place a few minutes later should dispel them. As he did in A History of Violence (2005), the director invests himself in a hoary genre, the gangster movie, and assimilates it into his own twisted, lucid vision. Or is it the other way around?
VIDEO: The trailer for Eastern Promises
I can’t recall any other Cronenberg film resorting to voiceover narration, at least not to the extent that this one does, and certainly not with the same sentimental effect. It comes from the diary of a 14-year-old girl who’s been lured from her shithole village in Ukraine to London by promises of a good job and even a singing career. She finds instead rape, forced addiction, sexual slavery, and death at the hands of the Vory v Zakone, the Russian mob. Anna (Naomi Watts), a second-generation Russian herself, is a midwife at the hospital where the girl dies. Anna finds the diary and asks her uncle (Jerzy Skolimowski) to translate it. Meanwhile, it’s being translated for us, rendered in the girl’s first gushing, later anguished, Russian-accented purple prose.
Okay, so maybe even Cronenberg can have a soft spot in his heart for innocent victims. If so, then Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen, with features honed as sharp as the blades that are the film’s weapons of choice) would probably puncture it with a linoleum cutter. He’s the “driver” for Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl, whose accent never gets farther east than Berlin), the Godfather of this murderous gang, and Semyon’s depraved son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel), the designated Fredo. (The front for the operation is Semyon’s richly Slavic restaurant, so though banquets still counterpoint bloodletting, borscht takes the place of spaghetti sauce.)
Coppola, however, does not share Cronenberg’s fascination with such things as Russian penal tattoos, a merging of language and skin in an outlaw code that is creepy, dehumanizing, threatening, and otherworldly. And as operatic as Coppola’s depictions of violence can be, he wouldn’t likely conceive of the naked violation of Cronenberg’s soon-to-be-notorious bathhouse fight scene. Cronenberg has always found violence erotic; here he acknowledges that it is also homo-erotic.
Meanwhile, the names of Semyon and Kirill crop up in the diary, and the references are far from flattering. The driver, therefore, must take care of business. A love story is in the works, but will he wind up with the guilt-ridden but determined Anna or the drunken, sexually conflicted Kirill? Like A History of Violence, Eastern Promises is tightly wrapped and full of surprises, and Cronenberg unfolds it with the resignation, efficiency, and grace of Mortensen’s performance.
At first an icy enigma, Nikolai sheds layers of concealment to reveal deeper mysteries. In a key scene, he stands before a council of mob chieftains in a dark chamber for a terrible initiation, baring the tattoos that tell the story of his life, that define the emptiness that is his identity. It’s reminiscent of James Woods in Videodrome embracing “the new flesh,” but not as cheerful. The beauty, and the terror, are more than skin deep.