David Cronenberg's transformation from body horror maestro to purveyor of the perfect modern thriller has been astonishing to watch. Those of us in the genre demo have long championed his corrupt corporeal obsessions, physicality and psychology merged together to form a perfect paranormal storm. But to see him apply the same sordid strategies to films like Naked Lunch (an odd adaption of the William Burroughs book), Crash, and the graphic novel inspired History of Violence has just been stunning. Equally amusing has been the way his otherwise dark and disturbing vision has been embraced by critics and mainstream moviegoers. The latest example of his continuing artistic climb is the mannered mob masterwork Eastern Promises. Instead of focusing on the operatic nature inherent in the archetype, Cronenberg is out to explore his own obsessions. And it's a very grim, gratuitous place for the knowing and the neophyte to wallow in.
A young midwife named Anna stumbles across the diary of a dead girl. With a newborn baby left behind, she's desperate to locate some manner of family abroad. With the help of her immigrant uncle Stepan, she translates a few pages of the text, and learns of the girl's name (Tatiana), her trip from Russia, and her initial contact with a local London restaurateur known as Semyon. When she approaches the seemingly genial gentleman, he promises to get to the bottom of the Tatiana's situation. What she doesn't know is that the kindly old man is the ruthless head of the Eastern European crime syndicate in London. Since Anna has a copy of the diary as well, the secrets it contains threaten the incognito mobster's standing. Semyon puts his son Kirill and dedicated 'driver' Nikolai on the case of reclaiming the journal, quieting anyone connected with it, and retrieving Tatiana's baby. Even the slightest slip up could mean chaos for this madman's omnipresent power structure.
They say there's honor among thieves, and that the vows of duty and loyalty among criminals can be the most complicated and primal of all. Eastern Promises is a movie that absolutely drowns in such underworld dynamics. From the elaborate body art worn by members of the Russian mafia (and what each symbol signifies) to the notion of innuendo and scandal as the ultimate destroyer of power (it's all about perception), this is the anti-Godfather, Goodfellas given a far seedier, more sullied veneer. Working from an original script by UK scribe Steven Knight, and exploring the growing ethic gangland violence permeating all of Europe, Cronenberg's puzzle box of a potboiler offers amazing performances, startling locales, and one of the most brutal and brazen fights scenes ever. And when you consider that the Canadian auteur has found a way to breathe new life into an already clichéd cinematic stereotype, the accomplishment is even more shocking.
Central to the movie's success is actor Viggo Mortensen. Working with Cronenberg for a second time (after the terrific A History of Violence), the Lord of the Rings icon undergoes a remarkable transformation here. Body perfectly toned, hair never out of place in its pompous pompadour sweep, skin riddled with all manner of enigmatic images, he's the flawless embodiment of Russian muscle. He's ruthless when need be (cutting up a body for proper river disposal) and tender when time allows (his scenes with costar Naomi Watts crackled with suppressed sexuality). It's a very brave turn, especially when, completely naked, he takes on two hitmen in hand to hand combat. Aside from the startling element of seeing a star completely nude wielding knives and sustaining mortal body blows, the raw physicality of the fighting is something rarely captured on film. Yet as he does with most of his movies, Cronenberg uses the human being, its biological limits, and the nasty stuff that floats around inside, as a catalyst for all kinds of discoveries - some graceful, some gruesome.
Yet there's more to Eastern Promises than bare-ass grappling and gallons of blood. In fact, the insular element of the film - what goes on within each character's fractured psyche - is far more fiendish than the slit throats or beaten bodies. As the mafia head, Armin Mueller-Stahl is a disturbingly corrupt figure of calm. When he talks about his own inherent wickedness, the hairs on the back of your neck literally stand on end. Equally effective in a far more cavalier, robust manner is Vincent Cassel. As the embittered son who can't make his manipulative father happy, he's a drawn out, drunken disaster. Even Watts is less than wholesome, her obsession with the child seen as an unclear compensation for a loss in her own life. No one in Eastern Promises is innocent. Cronenberg is instead working in gradients of immorality, from the heartfelt to the heinous. Such a complex narrative may leave fans of firefights and glorified goombah histrionics wanting more made men, but that would be missing the point. Even in the most ritualized system of sinister checks and balances, a sordid secret (or a potentially heroic one) can undo the most mired, menacing traditions. Like the genre it conveniently thwarts, Eastern Promises is a thriller of the brain, not the bullet.
Visually rich and lavish in its look, Cronenberg's flourishing optics (as well as his starker turns toward realism) look amazing in this stellar DVD transfer. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is excellent, loaded with detail and very controlled in its colors and contrasts. London looks almost alien in this wintery seasonal setting, and the compositions this director creates are first rate. Focus Features and Universal do this marvelous movie proud with such a digital presentation.
Oddly enough, the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix is nothing special. The back channels get a few choice moments, and the overall ambience is muted and unobtrusive. That means the added aural elements are never really challenged or championed. Howard Shore's score deserves special mention, however. It captures both the glamour and the menace inherent in the storyline.
Sadly, Eastern Promises is treated rather shabbily in the added content department. There are only two featurettes offered - lasting about 18 minutes in total - and each offers nothing more than EPK quality looks behind the scenes ("Secrets and Stories") and the truth behind the tattoos ("Marked for Life"). What this film needs - nay requires - is a commentary track from Cronenberg, some contextual documentaries on the Russian mafia, or anything that would clarify the issues inherent in the foreign crime plotline. This is a deep and layered film. Such superficial bonus features fail to properly supplement such a title.
In the end, the best thing about Eastern Promises may be its lack of conclusiveness. We definitely get an ending, and an epilogue wrap-up featuring a calculated character "where are they now." But there is no real sense of resolve, no suggestion that everything is right in this one time very wrong world. Instead, the tableaus suggest change, but little in the way of finality. Roles may have changed, and situations settled, but there is still trouble brewing. One can sense it. You can even see it in a person's slow, controlled deliberation. It's a look that can only come from contemplating the next move. It's the kind of ambiguity that earns the film an easy Highly Recommended. Unlike other movies in his canon, which end on a shot that suggests definiteness, David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises remains an enigma. And considering the genre he's working in, it explains crime's continuing hold on our consciousness.