A sort of companion piece to A History of Violence, at least in mood, this one again features Viggo Mortensen in the lead, again playing a character who has much more going on inside than it initially seems. He plays the quietly seething, and obviously dangerous Nikolai, the driver for the London-based restaurateur and, by the way, Russian crime lord, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Nikolai also appears to be around to keep an eye on Semyon's loose cannon of a son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel), in between his duties of getting killers where they need to be and then cleaning up their dirty work after them.
Which all leads back to the film's violence. Cronenberg lets us know in the opening sequence, set in an old-fashioned barbershop, that he's not going to be fooling around here -- that he's not going to pull back on anything or let any viewers willing to look at the screen off the hook. A customer-victim has his throat cut. But this isn't any simple slicing by a blade. The killer has some "technical difficulties," and ends up hacking away at the man in the chair, with blood flying and arms flailing. Cronenberg has admitted that he got the idea after watching a beheading by Islamic extremists on the Internet. Don't feel bad if you do have to look away; it's repulsive.
But Cronenberg and writer Steve Knight (Dirty Pretty Things) aren't here just to go all visceral and shake things up. They also have a story to tell.
That starts when London midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) assists with the birth of a battered young woman's child. The woman dies on the delivery table, leaving behind a healthy baby and a diary, written entirely in Russian.
Anna, maternal instincts reaching out, wants to know what's in the diary, hoping to get some clues about the woman's life. Semyon, the man whom Anna innocently asks to translate it, just wants the diary, mainly so no one else can see what's in it. Two very different people, joined by coincidence, combine to create a gripping story.
Out of all this come tales of human trafficking, mysterious societies, power struggles and a look at what's going on under the slimier rocks of London.
The film moves along slowly, almost elegantly, aided by a lusciously beautiful score from longtime Cronenberg cohort Howard Shore (who won Oscars for all three Lord of the Rings films). Mortensen's soft-spoken but malevolent characterization is at its best, meanwhile, when he glances at the sad, suffering Watts, puts on his best Russian-accented English, and quietly growls, "Stay away from people like me."
It's tough to categorize Eastern Promises in any single genre. At one point, for both cultural and criminal reasons, it delves into the history of tattooing. Halfway through the film, it's clear that most of the people have been harboring secrets, making them almost unrecognizable from when they were introduced. And despite the few examples of horrific violence, the movie also has a streak of tenderness.
Of course, it's the violence that will be talked about. A steam bath scene between an unarmed Mortensen, wearing only a towel, and two fully clothed thugs carrying curved carpet knives, is an automatic classic -- a lengthy and brilliantly choreographed set piece that will go down in cinema history as one of the best, bloodiest, and most gruesomely physical fights ever filmed.
It's hard to single out one film as Cronenberg's best. It would be easy to argue for The Fly, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, Crash, A History of Violence, and the hardly seen Spider. But Eastern Promises is certainly also in the running.