That Eastern Promises is steeped in bodily fluids should come as no surprise; for almost four decades, director David Cronenberg’s great theme has been the malleability and fragility of flesh. What is surprising, however, is the grace with which Cronenberg integrates these notions into an outwardly unremarkable crime thriller. Eastern Promises is about a tough chauffeur (Viggo Mortensen) for a Russian mob family in London who gets caught between his employers and a half-Russian midwife (Naomi Watts), who has come into the possession of an incriminating diary and an orphaned newborn. The film is comprised of moments you’ve seen countless times, but in Cronenberg’s hands, they bloom like orchids.
The opening barber shop throat-slitting; the follow-up scene where a pregnant 14-year old prostitute named Tatiana staggers into Trafalgar hospital, utters a strangled “Ch-help me,” expels a pint of innards on the floor and collapses; cinematographer Peter Suschitzky’s tracking shots through the restaurant owned by mob boss Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl)—a fecund dreamspace whose black, brown and dark red color scheme complements Semyon’s footsoldiers’ dark suits and sunglasses and his granddaughters’ dark red dresses; the corpse-disposal sequence, with Nikolai using shears to snip off frozen fingertips; the bathhouse fight, in which a naked Nikolai pulps two thugs’ bodies, blow-by-blow: described on the page, these touches threaten a genre movie that offers cruelty and opulence in place of metaphoric intricacy and feeling. Luckily, Eastern Promises is as affecting as it is savage, and it violates as many expectations as it satisfies. That’s the director’s blood onscreen. Every shot pulses with life.
The movie dramatizes Cronenberg’s preoccupations more, well, organically than his his other collaboration with Mortensen, A History of Violence—a film whose near-monolithic acclaim continues to elude me. While characteristically gripping, the latter struck me the closest thing to a canny resume-builder that Cronenberg had offered since The Dead Zone; superficially edgy but easily digestible, Violence was an arted-up but otherwise straightforward Reformed Killer Kills Again to Protect his Family movie. Mortensen’s character, ex-mob assassin turned diner cook Tom Stall, really and truly Weren’t Like That No More, to paraphrase the thematically similar, superior Unforgiven; yet he retained a convenient Rambo-like knack for lethal improvisation, his chops apparently maintained by years of cooking flapjacks. His wife (Maria Bello) and son (Ashton Holms) were troubled but essentially decent and as physically beautiful as Tom. The villains were so irredeemably nasty—their eeee-vil confirmed by repugnant personalities and/or faces—that Tom could exterminate them at will. (The ordeal might have caused the Stalls some sleepless nights, but did anyone who watch the movie lose one wink?) The Cronenbergian touches (coolly frank sex, tight closeups of mangled flesh) seemed forcibly imposed from without, a la Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear remake. Garishly foregrounding its subtext, and aping Blue Velvet’s tone and production design but not its nightmare anti-logic, Violence didn’t offer true complications, but a seductive facsimile. If it had come from a director known as a straightforward, semi-anonymous craftsman (Curtis Hanson, for instance, or James Foley) it would have impressed. But Cronenberg’s name promises more.
His follow-up doesn’t entirely deliver, but it’s still a thing of beauty. Compared to Violence, it’s subdued—as subdued as a gangster film drenched in gore can be, anyway. The construction of Steven Knight’s intriguingly anti-commercial script back-loads a movie-upending revelation, then puts a period where most filmmakers would gear up for a bullet-riddled third act. The twist doesn’t wreck the movie, but it does severely diminish it in the memory, redefining once mysterious, touching decisions and making them seem inevitable. Yet the film is still a major evolutionary step for the director: a non-science-fiction-inflected story whose Cronenbergian touches are embedded in its marrow rather than grafted on like armor.
The story’s general outlines are as unremarkable as Violence’s, maybe more so—think The Professional infused with The Godfather’s familial obsessions, ethnic details and stately pace—but it doesn’t play that way. The characters, who by all rights should seem flat and dead, are so completely imagined that we come to understand—even empathize—with all of them. Semyon—acted by Mueller-Stahl with his trademark mix of courtliness and lethal entitlement—is every inch the controlling, violent gangster daddy; but awareness of his mortality and his legacy drives his every decision, large and small. There’s tenderness—and evident musical skill—on display when he shows his granddaughter how to play her violin with feeling. And when Semyon’s hot-tempered, alcoholic, unreliable son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel) makes fun of a 100-year old restaurant patron celebrating her birthday at Semyon’s restaurant by teasing, “Who’s the party for, the Angel of Death?”, Semyon rebukes him for his immaturity and disrespect. Kirill initially seems like yet another crazy-macho weasel thug—a Fredo Corleone with delusions of Sonny-hood—but he’s more than that: jovial, witty, ambitious, sexually confused and as expressive as Nikolai is terse. Anna, whose attachment to Tatiana’s baby numbs her grief over a miscarriage and sparks awareness of the Russian heritage she has downplayed, could have been a plaster saint; but Cronenberg’s direction and Watts’ mix of warmth and fervor invest her actions with an undertone of compulsion. (She’s a seeker on a quest and doesn’t know it.) Even the smaller roles defy expectation: Anna’s uncle Stepan (superbly played by director Jerzy Smolinski) at first seems a typical hard-assed reactionary emigre. Referring to Anna’s black ex-lover, he mutters, “It’s not natural to mix race and race—that’s why your baby died inside you.” Yet after he grudgingly agrees to translate Tatiana’s diary, Stepan’s outrage at the girl’s degradation sparks Anna’s resolve.
Most surprising of all is Mortensen’s Nikolai, a man who avoids conflict and insists he’s just a driver. He seems a standard-issue brute with a conscience, kin to John Wayne’s Ringo Kid and Vin Diesel’s Riddick. Yet Knight’s restrained dialogue, Cronenberg’s oblique tone and Mortensen’s muted performance allude to pain that the character won’t discuss. You can learn more from reading his gang tattoos—talk about a history of violence!—than by parsing his words. To quote The Shamus:
“There is a long history in the movies of the quiet, powerful stranger, but Mortensen and Cronenberg remind us why this cliche continues to exert such an allure. Mortensen says little, and when he does, he speaks with a fluid Russian accent. He passes the Streep Test. But he goes beyond that. Observe the way he acts with his eyes. The way you can see him process thoughts, from pure anger to sympathy, and express them with a physicality where words would be superfluous. There is a scene where a mobster says something bad about Nikolai’s mamma. In most movies, this would be The Big Payback scene. Some smart-ass rejoinder and bust out the fight moves. What’s fascinating is that Nikolai responds simply by standing up quickly, then burying whatever he feels, or whatever he wants the mobster to think he feels.”
Cronenberg’s direction is similarly economical. He doesn’t cut unless he has to. He covers complex dialogue in two or three setups, often staging crucial exchanges within cinema’s workhorse angle, the medium shot. When he blocks his actors to suggest the characters’ shifting power dynamics, he goes for old-movie compositions that emphasize but don’t editorialize.
Case in point: the scene on the loading dock between Semyon, Nikolai, and Kirill. Semyon asks Nikolai to leave the truck with its purloined vodka and join him on the dock to discuss important business. The moment threatens Kirill’s ego because it confirms that Semyon trusts Nikolai more, and perhaps sees the driver as the son Semyon wishes he had. Cronenberg clarifies Kirill’s distress by cutting between medium low-angle shots of Semyon and Nikolai up on the dock and a reverse shot looking down at Kirill framed between legs of Semyon and Nikolai’s dark trousers. Physically diminished in the frame, Kirill suggests a child watching adults decide his fate. Good direction makes an idea clear; great direction makes it clear in retrospect, when you consider the movie in total, and within the context of the filmmaker’s career. Eastern Promises, for all its limitations, confirms Cronenberg as a great and still-searching director. He hit the peak of his power 20 years ago, with The Fly and Dead Ringers; he’ll do it again if he keeps making films as heartfelt as this one.