Oddball thriller makes good
Eastern Promises a compelling character study of life inside the Russian mafia
David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises begins with some graphic, grisly violence, leaving no doubt that there’s more to come later on. But it is also a strangely tender film, and an oddball thriller full of peculiar undercurrents and unexpected sensitivities. And strangenesses of several sorts make it into a surprisingly edgy and compelling experience.
It’s a Russian mafia tale in a British setting, and the violence goes more or less with the territory. But it’s also about Russian exiles, and one of its chief characters is an Anglo-Russian midwife, Anna (played by Naomi Watts), whose concern for the newborn child of a teenage prostitute (who dies giving birth) draws her into the milieu of the local Russian gangsters.
The mafia includes the émigré restaurateur Semyon (a suavely menacing Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his extravagantly erratic son Kirill (the admirably incautious Vincent Cassel). But even more central is Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), their chillingly efficient chauffeur and jack-of-all-dirty work, who shares the crime family’s background in Soviet-era prisons and whose deadpan deviousness and laconic menace win favor, quite separately, with father and son alike.
The potential for gruesome melodrama does not go unattended here, but the confrontation of half-crazed earnestness (Watts) with half-concealed menace (Mortensen in one way, Mueller-Stahl in another) is only part of the story. In the hands of Cronenberg and screenwriter Steve Knight, the tenderness and the violence may be opposite sides of the same coin.
Some of the plot twists are more surprising than others, but the keys to the film’s brilliantly queasy suspense reside in the details of Nikolai’s perilously extemporaneous partnerships—with Kirill on the one hand and Anna on the other. All four of the principal players make sharp contributions to the film’s circles of ambiguous characterization, and Cronenberg does not overplay the mythic reverberations—death and childbirth, Oedipal conflicts, Christmas setting, warrior clans—in Knight’s scenario.
As a film about immigrants and crime in contemporary London, Eastern Promises also offers up some sardonic commentary on post-Soviet fallout from Stalinism and the Cold War. But the production’s most subversive energies are directed toward the gangster genre and pop culture’s Godfather mythology. The patriarchal sadism and twisted homoeroticism of the gangster clans are prime points here, and they generate several of the film’s most memorable moments.
Indeed, this film may be remembered, for better or for worse, by its one great coup de theater: a fight to the death between a naked man and two knife-wielding thugs.