David Cronenberg is not a man known for his subtlety. He is, after all, the director who had James Woods pull a gun out of a rather suggestive-looking belly wound in Videodrome, turned Jeremy Irons into deadly twin gynecologists in Dead Ringers, and celebrated the connection between sex and vehicular collisions in Crash. The closest he has gotten to something resembling quiet and interpersonal was 2002's Spider, but even that was slightly marred by psychological connections so thick and obvious, you could hang the Golden Gate bridge from them.
So, it's kind of out of nowhere for me that his new movie, Eastern Promises, is a smart crime drama that hinges entirely on interpersonal relationships and things unspoken. Cronenberg works quietly, unspooling his narrative thread with a confident finesse. Though there are moments of violence in the movie, and though they are as bloody and brutal as anything the director has ever committed to celluloid, it isn't the indulgence of a filmmaker unable to resist going for the jugular (sometimes literally). It's as effective and as real as the rest of the movie, and an amazing reminder that all of this talk about the audience becoming desensitized to violence is so much hooey. The problem is violence that is so slick as to be obviously fake, with no real consequences; that a director like Cronenberg can still make the modern moviegoer squirm by reminding us how unpretty a knife to the gut really is proves it's not the audience but the product.
The story of Eastern Promises is one of immigrants trying to create their own pocket versions of their home country in the London suburbs, a topic that writer Steven Knight explored to much different effect in Dirty Pretty Things. In this case, it's Russian criminals setting up shop in their own ethnic district within the British city. The hierarchy in the little pocket we peek in on is three-fold. There is Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the old school patriarch with old country morals; his demented son Kiril (Vincent Cassel), who was born into the life and represents the conflicted societal ethics of Russian blood being born on English soil; and finally, there is Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), the driver for the family and the outsider. Kiril is a made man by virtue of family legacy, but Nikolai has to work for it. This means doing every piece of nastiness Kiril demands of him and toadying up to daddy when the time is right.
This social order is disrupted when one of the girls Semyon brought to England as part of his white slave ring escapes as her pregnancy comes to term. She bleeds out on the hospital table, but she leaves behind a diary. The midwife who delivered her daughter can't read Russian, but she's determined to find out where the girl came from. This midwife, Anna (Naomi Watts), is the daughter of a union between another Soviet immigrant, her late father, and a British mother. She doesn't understand the old ways, and so she thinks nothing of going to Semyon's restaurant and asking questions. It's not long before she's in way over her head.
Though we can see the bad guys long before Anna can, Knight and Cronenberg make sure that they are complex enough that we don't know them in their entirety. There are hidden levels to these Soviet baddies, and if it weren't for Anna's persistence, they'd not otherwise be revealed. If Kiril, played with a slimy menace by Cassel, is what happens when Eastern bloc stoicism is let loose in a much more lax Western structure, then Anna is the product of modern privilege. Played with Watts' usual wide-eyed conviction, she refuses to acknowledge how bad everything is, even when her aging uncle (Jerzy Skolimowski) and Nikolai, one of the bad guys himself, warns her of the danger. At the same time, Eastern Promises isn't one of those pictures where the naïve girl ends up taking down an entire crime family with a smile and blonde ambition. She's just a pawn in the story, a necessary component to give other players the advantage.
Honestly, I didn't have high hopes for Eastern Promises. I run hot and cold on Cronenberg, and I'm one of the few that didn't like his previous team-up with Viggo Mortensen, 2005's A History of Violence. That film had everything I perceive of a Cronenberg flick, but in all the wrong ways. It appeared to be sculpted with a hammer and a chisel and then edited with a hacksaw. Not so here. In Eastern Promises, Mortensen gets all of the nuance he struggled for in the previous role and then even dials it back a little more. Nikolai is a consummate, cold-blooded professional. He speaks only when he has something to say, knows his place and eats dirt when he needs to, but when he turns on the charm, he's seductive. More importantly, when things have to get done, everything he's held in reserve is unleashed, and it's deadly. There is more than one scene in the movie that made even the cynical audience of critics I saw it with react with audible revulsion. You're meant to fear this guy.
Outside of the main plot, what fascinated me most about Eastern Promises was the inner workings of the Russian mob. There were so many wonderful details, particularly in how they communicate, from the code of the mobsters' intricate tattoos to the body language they employ. At one point, two visiting Chechen killers let someone know he has done a good job by pats on the back and knowing looks. It made me think of how cats trade messages in the way they pass by one another, how rubbing one part of your body against another part of the other cat's body gets your intention across. Cronenberg never panics or worries that we might not get it, tossing in chunky exposition to hedge his bets. He has faith in us and the script to meet in all the right alleyways.
For a career as far along as David Cronenberg's, Eastern Promises is the kind of mature switch-up that suggests longevity far beyond what one would have even expected from an already accomplished director. It brings to mind the directing work of Clint Eastwood, actually: someone known primarily for blunt takes on genre finding new and deeper furrows by expanding that genre base and getting serious about it. It'll be interested to see what Cronenberg does next, but regardless of his future, Eastern Promises has given him a present that is no less than exceptional.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.