Eastern Promises

(2007) *** R
96 min. Focus Features. Director: David Cronenberg. Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Sinead Cusack.

"I'm just a driver," says Russian mobster Nikolai Luzhin. "I go left, I go right, I go straight ahead: that's it." As delivered by the craftily ambiguous Viggo Mortensen, these disingenuous lines represent the trickery behind David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises. Like The History of Violence—the previous collaboration of director Cronenberg and star Mortensen—Eastern Promises refuses to travel a straight line of identity. This "driver"/undertaker plays everything close to the vest, but his morality seems more finely tuned than the evil movers and thuggish shakers around him. Is he a good man or a bad man, and more importantly, should he be trusted?

Cronenberg's pitch-black crime thriller has the feel of a graphic novel. As scripted by Steven Knight (the similarly themed Dirty Pretty Things), Eastern Promises also has a pleasing anthropological interest in the hidden subculture of the Russian mob in London. Following the murder of a young mother, Trafalgar Hospital midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) begins an investigation that sends bloody ripples through the criminal underworld. Immediately running afoul of deceptively ingratiating crime boss Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), Anna realizes she's tipped her hand about her possession of an incriminating diary penned by the victim.

Nikolai has problems of his own in handling Semyon's emotional wreck of a son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel), but the driver's interest is nevertheless piqued by Anna's bold arrival into the underworld. Is he smitten? Is he being protective? Is he using her to an unseen end? Or is he simply plucking the wings off a fly? Cronenberg constructs the narrative to allow for multiple possibilities, and don't expect one definitive answer by the time the credits roll. What seems clearer is that Kirill's repressed homosexuality is largely responsible for stoking a dangerous psychopathology.

Mortensen delivers a lived-in, award-worthy performance—with good support from Mueller-Stahl and Cassel—and the star clearly remains in step with his director. For his part, Cronenberg reassembles his large company of behind-the-scenes talents: crack DP Peter Suschitzky provides the dark, rich visuals; Howard Shore the creeping, ethnic-inflected score; Carol Spier the deep-hued production design; and so forth. Entering into this meticulously crafted mood is a satisfying filmic experience unto itself: Cronenberg is unquestionably an idiosyncratic and inimitable filmmaker.

The film opens with a vigorous, graphic throat-slitting (at a Russian barber's, natch) and moves on to various mayhem involving violations of the human body or, in other words, the language of Cronenberg. Chief among the bloody body alterations that keenly interest the director are the coded tattoos of Russian mobsters, to whom each body tells a life story. Cronenberg also cultivates visceral body violation by staging a nude knife fight designed to maximize the rattling of the audience. If this scene suggests a Hitchcockian setpiece, perhaps the comparison also explains Watts' somewhat remote "cool blonde" role: as the blankly righteous, generically unnerved Anna, Watts never quite clicks.

Eastern Promises' unusually ambiguous character study makes for a different kind of crime drama, a striking if not entirely satisfying one. One of our rarest filmmaker seems to have undercooked his meat a bit this time around, but Cronenberg's cold eye and disinterest in restraint when it comes to violence contribute to another unsettling entry in his catalog.

[For Groucho's interview with David Cronenberg & Viggo Mortensen, click here.]

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