David Cronenberg likes to get inside the minds and souls of his characters. In earlier films, he found a neatly direct route: Explode their heads (Scanners) or, more thoroughly, their entire bodies (The Fly). Perhaps then, beginning his newest, Eastern Promises, by sawing open the neck of a man seated at a barber shop adumbrates a more patient unveiling.
That opening scene to this noir exploration of the Russian mob in London is interlaced with another: a birth, equally bloody and vivid. The mother, a young, pretty girl with a vaguely Eastern European accent, perishes. The camera lingers on the infant. Its tender, translucent membrane of flesh is caked in half-clotted, crimson birth fluid.
The midwife, Anna, is played by Naomi Watts, who conveys her character's mixture of innocence and indignation appealingly. Anna purloins the deceased's journal in hopes of tracking down the child's relatives, and takes it to her uncle, a gruff, bigoted Russian immigrant who sets out to translate it. While he does so, a business card in the journal leads Anna to a Russian eatery where even the bartender is chauffeured in a gleaming black Mercedes. Mob front, perhaps?
Indeed. The proprietor is Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the don of these Corleonitskas. The grandfatherly Semyon makes a fantastic borscht but something's not right in his eyes. Semyon's son is Kirill (Vincent Cassel), the successor every king or crime boss dreads: a truculent dolt, possibly homosexual, with a predilection toward grain liquor. Kirill's driver, Nikolai, his body covered in Russian prison tattoos, is the type of man every king or crime boss dreams of having as a son. He's astute and coldly pragmatic with an adamantine will: a perfect prince of darkness.
Nikolai is flawlessly performed by the ingenious Renaissance man Viggo Mortensen. Not only did Mortensen star as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings series, plus a long list of other movies, including Cronenberg's A History of Violence, he is also an accomplished poet, a publisher, a photographer and a painter whose work is shown in well-known galleries. He speaks fluent English, Dutch, Spanish, and French and passable Swedish and Norwegian and is a jazz musician who released three CDs. Oh yes, he is also an expert horseman and was ranked No. 10 on VH-1's Hottest Hotties list. You want to loathe him, but end up loving him, damnit.
As Anna descends into this underworld, she serves as chaperon to the audience, an ambassador from the sunny realm of the ordinary. Her blonde hair (blonde that's not too blonde is always filmic shorthand for purity) is a chromatic counterpoint to the black leather, black cars and black souls. Her maternal gentleness also amplifies the film's bursts of brutality, the most striking of which has Mortensen involved in a naked (Viggo fans rejoice!) knife fight in a Turkish bathhouse.
But the damsel-in-danger trope is played with restraint, as is the suspense. Cronenberg, whose career has been reinvigorated by the critical success of A History of Violence (which not only shares a lead actor with Eastern Promises, but also overlays thematically), proceeds with linear, straight-ahead plotting and patient pacing that lingers long enough to develop characters. The linear unfolding and mainstream themes shouldn't disappoint fans of Cronenberg's bizarre earlier work, such as Videodrome, if they peer deeper. Cronenberg has pushed the subliminal terror into the id's perimeter. Though set in London, Eastern Promises takes place on the dark penumbra where the subconscious apprehends social transgression. That it accomplishes this so subtly, is primarily why Eastern Promises deserves to be catalogued right up there with other classics of the genre, including The Godfather.