Eastern Promises (Focus Films), David Cronenberg’s elegant treatise on the metaphysics of violence, begins with twin jets of blood: A man in a barber’s chair has his throat cut by a mentally deficient would-be gangster, while elsewhere in London, a teenager in labor begs for help in a pharmacy, blood pouring from between her legs. The girl, Tatiana, dies in childbirth, and the midwife who delivers the baby, Anna (Naomi Watts), is left with only the girl’s diary, written in Russian, to track down a family member to take the child. As it happens, Anna’s uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowsky) is a Russian immigrant—and also a cynical drunk who refuses, at first, to translate the diary.
It’s then that Anna takes the fateful step of visiting the Trans-Siberian Restaurant, a creepy, crimson-draped establishment whose business card was tucked inside the diary. The proprietor, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl, atwinkle with menace), denies any knowledge of Tatiana, but he takes an unseemly interest in her diary, offering to translate it for Anna and deliver the results to her house. Even the naive and idealistic Anna finds this strange, and soon realizes that the Trans-Siberian is a front for the Vory V Zakone—the “thieves with a code” of the Russian mob. But it’s too late—Semyon knows who she is, and he’s determined to get a hold of both diary and baby before his own secrets leak out.
Anna’s attempts to extricate herself from the pallid grip of this monster get her caught up in the rivalry between Semyon’s weak-willed son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and his driver, the enigmatic Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). Kirill is an impulsive alcoholic whose mistakes—like ordering that barbershop killing—Nikolai discreetly cleans up after, snipping the fingers off the corpse before he dumps it in the Thames. But even as Nikolai rises higher in Semyon’s esteem and in the mob hierarchy, he takes a dangerous shine to the oddball midwife who keeps showing up on her motorcycle, looking for answers about that dead Russian girl.
The screenplay by Steve Knight (who explored the underbelly of immigrant London once before, in Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things) has a few plot holes—a late revelation about Nikolai’s past rings weirdly false, and isn’t the whole struggle for possession of the diary rendered moot by the existence of the photocopy machine? But Cronenberg has become such an assured director that it’s a pleasure to sit back and hand yourself over to his sick and singular vision. Like his last film, A History of Violence, Eastern Promises proceeds with a solemn, magisterial rhythm in which disaster constantly hovers, but rarely alights.
But even when people’s bodies undergo terrible things in a Cronenberg film (the exploding heads in Scanners, the transformation into an insect in The Fly), there’s a sense of respect for the body itself. Violence in Cronenberg is ineluctable, brutal, and repellent, but it matters. There’s none of the blam-pow jokiness of the post-moral, video-game school of filmmaking. Rather, he’s interested in the social uses of violence, whether as a tool of the powerful, a rite of initiation, or an erotic game. And even when—here as in A History of Violence—you’re not quite sure what his meditations on the subject add up to, you leave his movies feeling unsettled in the best sense. Eastern Promises is only deceptively genre-bound; it’s a conventional gangster film that morphs, Jeff Goldblum-style, into something far richer and stranger.
Naomi Watts, who discovered she was pregnant a few weeks into the filming, brings a wounded radiance to the overcurious midwife Anna. Though it’s a bit of a one-note role, it’s a note she’s long specialized in, a kind of flustered moral aggrievement. And, at the risk of sounding like the proprietor of one of his countless fan pages, Viggo Mortensen is just amazing as Nikolai. He’s the ideal Cronenberg anti-hero: gentle and macho at the same time, as charismatic as Steve McQueen and as beautiful as a saint in a master painting. When Nikolai gets his star tattoos—the Russian equivalent of being “made”—Mortensen sprawls nude on a red banquette, lit from above like a Caravaggio martyr. But the audience’s longest glimpse of Viggo’s zero-fat bod, man-bits and all, comes in a scene that can be watched only from between clenched fingers: Nikolai’s climactic battle with two Chechen gangsters in a steam bath. If you saw A History of Violence, you know Mortensen can fuck up a guy something fierce, but till you’ve seen him do it buck naked and covered in mob tattoos, you haven’t lived.