It’s unclear what specific act Russian gangster Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) is threatening when, after meeting with the uncle (Jerzy Skolimowski) of a woman (Naomi Watts) causing his employer trouble, he jabs two fingers into his neck and then points at the man. The gesture’s insinuation of hostility, however, is terrifyingly clear, as is its connection to Eastern Promises’ more general characterization of Nikolai and his ruthless cohorts as vampires. “I am already dead,” says Nikolai during an initiation ceremony in which his heavily tattooed frame is bared, the various ink drawings recounting a cold-blooded existence as dutiful mob lackey, though his status as a man with no emotional or moral pulse is inescapable even when he’s decked out in a long black overcoat and matching shades. Moreover, with his heavily scarred physique, he’s also the director’s latest piece of “new flesh,” an example of the body transmogrified to reflect the inner soul, and the film is – in typical Cronenberg fashion – a portrait of said vessel’s vulnerability to assault and invasion, peaking with a tour de force sequence featuring a completely nude Nikolai fending off would-be assassins in a bathhouse.
To discuss Eastern Promises as another of Cronenberg’s body-horror shows is to somewhat obscure the fact that, as with 2005’s A History of Violence, the film is firstly an underworld thriller emblazoned with an intense performance by Mortensen. But the urge to confront it on thematic terms is also driven by the fact that its subtextual currents are more compelling than the actual narrative itself, which never wholly coheres into something satisfyingly suspenseful. The nominal protagonist, midwife Anna (Watts), finds herself uncomfortably involved with Nikolai, his kingpin boss Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), and Semyon’s cocksure son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) after a 14-year-old prostitute at her hospital dies while giving birth. The dead girl’s horrific diary leads Anna – against her mother and uncle’s advice to drop the entire affair – to Semyon’s luxuriant restaurant and his vory v zakone gang dealings. Her journey is our entrée into this seedy milieu, and yet once there, she ceases to serve a valuable purpose in Steven Knight’s script, which proceeds to clunkily consign her to the sidelines in favor of focusing on venomous goons.
Anna may be a dull and poorly handled device, but at least she’s given a hint of perversion via her attempts to protect the orphaned baby, which mask her real desire to keep it as replacement for her own miscarried child. More aggravating is Knight’s failure to conceal his late-inning twist involving Nikolai’s identity, which saps any surprise from the climactic revelations. Still, there’s verve to Cronenberg’s transformation of superficially straightforward pulp material into a personal work about foreign (Russian and Turkish) intruders in the English body politic. Throats are cut, backs are slashed, and fingers are severed, all incidents staged with a grisly bluntness that – in a manner similar to his prior film – aims to question and challenge viewers’ vicarious identification with murderous men like Nikolai. Courtesy of Cronenberg’s masterfully composed, sharply angular compositions, the turmoil beneath the tranquil surface is palpable, most forcefully in the person of Kirill, whose demand that Nikolai bed a whore while he watches is simply the first of many times his suppressed homoeroticism bubbles to the fore.
Cronenberg doesn’t significantly elaborate upon so much as revisit A History of Violence’s preoccupation with family dynamics, and though his depiction of Semyon and Kirill’s relationship is fraught with friction, the characters periodically come across as caricatures of vodka-and-borscht-loving Ruskies. Alternately, his interest in masculine codes of honor finds expression in menacingly electric ways, such that every act of brutality – and every friendly and tense exchange between surrogate brothers/lovers Nikolai and Kirill – is colored by rigid, unspoken mores. Mortensen is the director’s ace in the hole, his tough-guy quips regularly veering toward cartoonishness, but his performance’s remote, mechanical emptiness proving so focused and precise that it often obscures the story’s more mundane machinations. The film is fascinated by the vicious ugliness within, whether it be with regards to our bodies (Anna’s miscarriage), our thoughts (Anna’s uncle’s racism), our families, or our societies. It’s Nikolai’s cold, fierce inner void, however, that ultimately proves Eastern Promises’ most chilling wellspring of violence.