Canadian director David Cronenberg had a reputation as a terrific horror filmmaker prior to the 2000’s, but since the turn of the century, he has seemingly been operating outside his comfort zone. To be honest, saying “comfort zone” is actually plain silly, because a mere trek through his more recent works (Maps to the Stars, A History of Violence, Spider, A Dangerous Method etc.) illustrate the fact Cronenberg is simply maestro behind the camera, able to churn out terrific performances from pivotal cast members whilst executing his vision. Scripted by Stephen Knight, Eastern Promises marked a continuance in his seeming “desertion” of the horror genre as he narrowed in on a section of the Russian mafia operations in London.
Early on in the film we meet a pregnant 14-year-old Russian prostitute, who goes into a bloody labour. She is rushed to a hospital where midwife, Anna (Naomi Watts), tends to the pregnant teenage girl who eventually dies giving birth to a daughter, but she leaves behind a diary filled with Russian text that Anna’s snide Uncle will go on to translate opening a can of worms. We come to learn this deceased girl had some ties to a certain Russian patriarch and gang boss, Semyon, played by thespian veteran Armin Mueller-Stahl, who oozes discomfiting gravitas in this role.
Semyon owns a fancy little restaurant and comes off as a Santa Claus without the beard on the surface but behind all the soothing music and regal cuisine is a winking devil, a nasty streak of intimidation, drugs, sex-trafficking and violence. In the backdrop of the central crime gang we also have Semyon’s conceited coarse drunken son, Krill (Vincent Cassel) and the family’s chauffeur cum enforcer Nikolai played with and impassive chill by Viggo Mortensen. Mortensen is no stranger to Cronenberg and his signature elements following their collaboration on A History of Violence and much like the small town character he portrayed then, a pivotal character progression awaits us in his stirring portrayal as he brings some level of ambiguity to largely a black and white story.
Cronenberg demonstrates commendable awareness of the importance of “blood” and family, and the role it plays in forging identity. Anna is determined to track down kin of the dead teenage mother and her baby girl whom she later christens Christine. She is prepared to go as far Christine’s homeland in the hope of finding family and feels the prospects in her homeland with family outweigh anything the British foster system has to offer. One may find her efforts naïve considering this teenage mother migrated west with hopes of a better life, but we understand the sentiment at play here and find grace in it. The family angle also comes up when analysing the relationship between Semyon, Krill and interestingly Nikolai. Semyon admits to us his son isn’t the most refined tool in the box and that “London is to blame what he is” and I wondered if perhaps he would have preferred a son like Nikolai who seems to garner some level of respect never shown his own son.
As the film progresses we become aware of the extent of Krill’s involvement in an act of violence early in the film as man has his throat cut in graphic Cronenbergian fashion and when the chickens come to roost Semyon has some decisions to make in the name of penance as he has to give up his son to the wronged Chechens and to an extent he does. This culminates in a viscerally exhilarating fight sequence between two knife-wielding Chechen enforcers and a naked Nikolai with a steam bath the clichéd eastern European setting for this challenging but impeccably-executed eruption of grisly violence by Cronenberg and Mortensen.
Our director has garnered acclaim for his impeccable dissections of the idea of identity over the course of his career and his marked theme rears its head in a couple of ways like the connotation of tattoos in the Russian crime culture proving quite intriguing. The body of a dead Russian gangster is found without teeth and fingers ruling out any possible mode of conventional identification but the chief police operative (Donald Sumpter) can make inferences to this man’s criminal background through the array tattoos on his corpse.
It is said the man with tattoos has no history and no identity and later on readings are made of Nikolai’s crime past via the menacing tattoos he is adorned with chronicling his time as a thief to his prison stint and affinity with solitary confinement. In the Italian crime films a “made man” was grounded in principle and mores but in the Russian mafia you needed tattoos as a symbol of rank and standing and when Nikolai progresses into the inner circle of this London Russian mafia, a tattoo artist is on hand and just as important as the gang leaders present for the ceremony.
Cronenberg manages to infuse this crimson laden crime drama with rich layers and intriguing detail affirming his standing as an incredibly thoughtful filmmaker and a master conductor of cinema whilst milking absorbing performances from his talented cast.