The middle section of Cronenberg’s triptych with Viggo Mortenson, “Eastern Promises” is one of the absolute gems among a treasure trove of a rich and varied directorial career. Boasting a trio of excellent male performances(Mortenson, along with Vincent Cassel and Armin Mueller-Stahl), and a solid central turn from the gifted Naomi Watts, it’s a film with a decidedly more potent representation of David’s ubiquitous “body-horror” theme—a good deal of this being the sharp and original focus on the artistry of Russian Mafia tattoos. The body art is said to tell the story of the Russian criminal’s life, and Mortenson’s character Nikolai Luzhin sits before a panel of bosses in nothing but his black briefs at one point late in the film, as they “read” his physique to determine if he is a candidate for promotion. It’s a bold and astonishing scene that sets the stage for an even more naked reveal soon-to-follow in the work’s celebrated bathhouse knife fight. Mortenson proves even braver during that breath-taking battle—and sans his skivvies this time round. Also featuring plentiful throat slashings, eye-gougings and finger-choppings, this movie is far more Cronenbergian in style then the cerebral follow-up, “A Dangerous Method” four years later. It’s a firm entry in the director’s typical oeuvre. Viggo Mortenson received an Academy Award nomination for his work here—and I can’t help but note that he’s as nude as Oscar during that bloody bathhouse brawl.
Seymon(Mueller-Stahl)is an old and respected leader within the Russian Mafia who runs a London-based restaurant. His weak, impotent, and impulsive offspring Kirill(a marvelous Mr. Cassel), gathers under-age girls for a prostitution ring where both father and son engage in raping and overall abusing the teenagers. When a mortally injured victim escapes and passes out at a local pharmacy, exposure lurks for these criminal doings. The girl soon dies in a hospital just as midwife Anna(Ms. Watts)delivers a healthy daughter from the unfortunate lass. There is also a diary found in possession of the deceased. It’s written in Russian, but Anna calls upon her Ukrainian uncle to translate the tome. It soon leads to Seymon and Kirill, and Anna visits the restaurant before the book is fully deciphered. Temporarily fooled by the grandfatherly Seymon, she agrees to return to seek more information and also runs into Kirill’s partner and Seymon’s driver, Nikolai(a possibly career-best Mortenson). The dark, exacting and striking Nikolai also acts as Seymon’s “cleaner”, and given the task of mutilating(to hamper identification)and then disposing of murdered bodies in the Thames. Anna quickly figures out, with the help of her uncle’s translation, and greatly fears this trio—with her primary concern being the newborn little girl still residing in the hospital where Anna is employed. Seymon tries to strike a deal, a promised safe return of the child to the murdered girl’s family in exchange for the still-being-translated incriminating diary. Also, the threatening, tattoo-covered Nikolai is put on the tail of Anna—along with her mother and uncle with whom she lives. Seymon puts much trust in the competence and loyalty of Nikolai, as it becomes apparent that he envisions his driver as the son he wishes he had—instead of the vulnerable drunk, Kirill. But the ball just may be rolling too fast for Seymon to remain unscathed—and the past of the mysterious Nikolai may be more than initially meets the eye.
Cronenberg takes Steven Knight’s adroit script and carves it into an archetypal model of his signature style. Again, unlike “A Dangerous Method”, there is no mistaking this as anything other than the work of D.C. His usual team of editor Ronald Sanders and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky provide their usual expert assistance with a fast-paced barely 95 minute cut and a stark palette of browns along with the black ink of essential body-art, respectively. Likewise, a melancholy Eastern flavor is provided with the work of the ever-present composer, Howard Shore. And, as always, costume designer/sister, Denise Cronenberg, provides the proper suits and leathers—that is until clothes are rendered unnecessary at certain junctures. A tip to help with a third act plot reveal: remember a first act appearance of a plastic-wrapped note found on a body in the river. It’s subtlety is deft and admirable. “Eastern Promises” was the culmination of an especially fruitful decade in the career of Mr. Cronenberg as he embarked on a journey of artistic renewal and slightly more commercial viability after the audacious 1990’s output of works like “Naked Lunch” and “Crash”. This was a move that angered a portion of his fan-base, but something I saw as a logical step. There was only so much further Cronenberg could continue to push that envelope as embodied by his work of the 1990’s. Like his outspoken admirer, Martin Scorsese, David is keenly aware of the occasional need for a career reboot. Not that his flamboyance was tapped-out in the previous decade—it just required a somewhat diverted course. And this film, after the soon-to-be chronicled, “A History of Violence” and “Spider”, was the final product of an incredibly consistent period of David’s career—maybe only rivaled and surpassed by his 1983-1991 output. But there are future months for all of those. “Eastern Promises” is a formidable stunner. Grade: A