Eastern Promises is a straighter version of Inland Empire, which is not to say that it isn’t totally queer. David Cronenberg’s new film is the story of a woman in trouble: Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), a London midwife who becomes obsessed with finding the family of a 14-year-old prostitute who dies after delivering a child under her watch. The anonymous dead girl’s diary, written in Russian, provides the film with its heavy-handed narration and brings Anna in contact with Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl—totally bonkers), a sinister, old-school don who commandeers the Vory V Zakone criminal faction out of his Trans-Siberian restaurant, his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel), and their mysterious driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). The story is clear-cut, which is something of a bummer after the heady, one-two punch of the serpentine Spider and iconic splendor of A History of Violence, but Cronenberg’s exquisite framing provides the film with arresting psychological dimensions; only Polanski is better at framing the world along diagonal lines, but Cronenberg’s images are more insinuating, leaving one feeling wary of what may be bubbling beneath the surface of things. Way before Semyon learns that Kirill is being ridiculed by his enemies for possibly being gay, Cronenberg has already amped up the homoerotic tension: In a crucial scene, Kirill insists on watching Nikolai fuck a whore from behind; and in another, Nikolai’s balls-out escape from the grip of two goons inside a Turkish bath ingeniously suggests a hot and sweaty fuck session. The film’s Russians are not conceived beyond vodka-guzzling stereotypes, and Steven Knight’s screenplay, much in the spirit of the atrocious Dirty Pretty Things, essentially transforms the nightmare of thwarted immigrant dreams into a tawdry sex expo, but Cronenberg’s contemplation of codes of masculine honor by anxiously putting the male body on the line is deliciously transgressive.
- Focus Features
- 100 min
- David Cronenberg
- Steven Knight
- Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Sinéad Cusack, Jerzy Skolimowski
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