You cannot walk out of David Cronenberg’s new masterpiece, Eastern Promises without thinking of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy. Its gravity is that palpable. It is not that Eastern Promises is guilty of regicide or succeeds in actually usurping the throne. But the film effortlessly and majestically takes its place as a great crime epic in miniature, arguably more "Godfather" than Coppola’s final installment of the classic cinematic triumvirate.
Cronenberg, who helmed 2005’s magnificent A History of Violence returns with an equally mesmerizing story of the Russian mafia, set in London. The story follows British midwife Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), who delivers the baby of a young teenaged prostitute who subsequently dies on the delivery bed. Unbeknownst to her, Anna’s quest to reunite the child with its family will set her on a collision course with a ruthless Russian crime syndicate.
While Anna’s Russian uncle (Jerzy Skolimowski) works to translate a diary found in the girl’s purse (unlocking a harrowing tale of sexual slavery which he hear throughout the film as narration), Anna’s encounters Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen), a lieutenant for the Vory V Zakone, led by Kirill’s father, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who uses his chic trans-Siberian restaurant as a cover for sex trafficking. When Anna’s good intensions threaten to uncover the crime ring, she finds herself in Nikolai’s crosshairs.
Cronenberg’s bravura, nuanced direction is spare and clean, bereft of the sort of gaudy flourish and ornamentation that might detract from the film’s bracing authenticity. Eastern Promises is meticulously paced, measured but never tedious. This pacing lures the viewer into a false sense of comfort, so that when the film explodes in moments of extreme and gruesome violence, the shock is all the more startling. Eastern Promises is not afraid to dwell on the repulsiveness of violence. It does not flinch from revealing this subterranean world in all of its brazen brutality. Eastern Promises is not a film of guns, but of knives. In a particularly harrowing scene, a naked Nikolai is viciously attacked by two butchers in a bathhouse.
Cronenberg’s cast is brilliant. Watts gives a pitch-perfect performance. Hers is a life-affirming counterpoint to the darker characters all around her. To his credit, Cronenberg never attempts to take one of Hollywood’s most breathtaking leading ladies and doll her up. Watts’ stellar beauty, like her performance, is understated and believable. Frenchman Cassel is terrifying as a pathological, mentally unhinged crime prince obviously in love with his right-hand-man, Nikolai, who is more a son to Mueller-Stahl’s don (who plays the role with exquisite grandfatherly menace) than his own flesh and blood.
But it is Mortensen (star of A History of Violence but best known as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy) who truly astonishes. His elegantly accented role is dark and tortured, powerfully coiled lethality interlaced with an unfathomable compassion that hints at a secret twist none but a few share. We cannot take our eyes off of him, even when he is nothing more than a presence in a room. The final shot of the film, a slow push on Mortensen, is imbued with profound dignity and ambiguity. It is a tour-de-force performance that speaks to Mortensen’s blistering talent so often overlooked because of its deep but minimalist nature.
Eastern Promises is a film of searing intensity that examines the tenuous membrane between good and evil as well as the frail nature of identity. Incisively written, impeccably directed and tautly acted, Eastern Promises is the first great movie of the fall lineup, a Godfather for a new culture and era.