Anna (Naomi Watts) is a midwife troubled by her encounter with a pregnant teen who died while giving birth to her baby. Finding a diary written in Russian, Anna goes to her family, hoping her Russia-born uncle will be able to translate. Digging for answers, Anna heads to Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the head of the London contingent of the vory v zakone crime family. Slowly comprehending that the diary she's unable to read holds great danger, Anna finds some comfort in Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), a driver with a semblance of conscience.
"A History of Violence" brought director David Cronenberg a massive amount of acclaim, a flicker of box office might, and returned a focal point to his filmmaking. "Eastern Promises" furthers his career resurgence, presenting a director completely in control of his askew vision, constructing a picture that doesn't have much in the way of narrative heft, but still incorporates an immediacy that's incredible.
While sold as a thriller, "Promises" is something more of a dissection of moral integrity. Written by Steven Knight ("Dirty Pretty Things"), the film doesn't concern itself with chases, gunfights, or any pulse-quickening conventions. Think of "Promises" as a Russian variation of "The Godfather," looking at the process of a tight crime family, how they clean up their dirty laundry, and how outsiders are dealt with when they come uncomfortably close. Knight has written a disciplined, composed screenplay of Russian familial interaction and language-crossing sex-crime mystery, yet, in the hands of Cronenberg, "Promises" expands into a remarkable tale of escalating threat from all sides of the frame.
While the picture is far more interested in brooding and silent intimidation than clichéd expressions of worry, that doesn't mean Cronenberg has ditched his continued curiosity with extreme violence and the textures of sliced flesh. "Promises" contains one of the best sequences of his continually daring career, showing Nikolai brutally fending off two assassins in a steam room. Of course, this being a Cronenberg film, Mortensen performs the entire five-minute scene naked, and I don't mean emotionally. As if watching three guys cut each other up with knives isn't unsettling enough, here's the perfect added spice of disbelief slipped in by the filmmaker to take something vicious and make it unforgettable.
Even without his nudity, Mortensen's performance here is a restrained, shadowed work of art. Perfecting a Russian accent and shaping himself into an impeccably suited vision of doom, the actor nails the role of Nikolai, rendering both sides of the psychological coin with a comfort his early career was begging for. Add to the mix a frighteningly imposing turn from Mueller-Stahl, a deliciously loutish one from Vincent Cassel (as Semyon's dim-witted son and Nikolai's albatross), and an assortment of memorable Cronenberg-tweaked supporting performances, and "Promises" is a tremendous force of actorly might, and the director wisely invests in their reservoir of creativity.
"Promises" is not the snappiest mystery around, as it requires a thorough concentration that matches the painstaking tone Cronenberg and Knight are attempting to stir up; but for those with a little more patience, "Eastern Promises" is an extraordinarily threatening crime saga made with unnerving skill and exquisite detail.