Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic
David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises is a simple story well told. It deals with the Russian mafia in London, but aside from a few scenes of graphic, very real violence, it relies on character and dialogue to tell its story. The movie asks its audience to listen closely, not only to decipher the thick Russian accents, but also to search for silent meanings hidden in its spare language, which evokes David Mamet but remains unmistakably Cronenberg, a man who once dominated the exploding-head genre but has since evolved into such an auteur that I wanted to throw flowers at the screen when this movie ended.
Viggo Mortensen, so fantastic in Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, is equally effective here as Nikolai Luzhin, a "driver" for a Russian mafia family that rules its shady corner of London from a restaurant. Other major players in the crime family include Armin Mueller-Stahl (The Game) as the mob chieftain and Vincent Cassel as his volatile second-in-command. Tragedy and mystery set the story in motion after a local girl dies while giving birth to a child that may belong to one of the mafia members. Naomi Watts plays a nurse who winds up with the dead girl's diary — which may or may not contain incriminating evidence against the family.
The plot in Eastern Promises draws us into a world that is at once familiar and foreign, natural and nightmarish. This is classic Cronenberg, whose movies exist in the hazy demilitarized zone between reality and dreams, and whose mis en scene relentlessly propels us into his nightmares, always informed by the nether-logic of the subconscious and a rich film tradition that includes as much Michael Corleone as it does Tony Soprano.
Total credit must go to Cronenberg for taking Steven Knight's taut script and turning it into a lean, efficient master class on how to make an unlikely thriller. I loved watching Naomi Watts' character get pulled deeper into Mortensen's deadly world, and I loved how I knew the movie took place in London, but I couldn't recognize any of it — most of the movie is set in alleyways, side streets and the mob family's restaurant.
Cronenberg's primary goal is to entertain, but as with all of his movies, well defined characters and a strong theme act as ballast to the high-concept story engine. For every violent moment, there's a performance like Mortensen's steely but compassionate mob driver. For every lurid detail, there's the movie's inescapable theme: that these characters were promised freedom back in mother Russia, but an iron fist followed them west.
More great performances include Mueller-Stahl (a longtime favorite of mine) who plays a warm uncle with a cold, deadly stare; and Frenchman Vincent Cassel as the insecure loose cannon who knows he doesn't have what it takes to run the family. Watts also turns in a solid performance as a woman intent on doing what's right even though it may cost her everything.
Eastern Promises won't be the flashiest film this fall. It won’t make a lot of dough. But in my mind it's another gem in Cronenberg's crown. He's been carving out a place for himself in the pantheon of A-list directors, but to me, he's always been there.