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When I talked with Viggo Mortensen and David Cronenberg about EASTERN PROMISES on August 24, 2007, it was just a matter of time before the steam bath came up. In one of Cronenberg’s most audacious sequences, Mortensen, wearing only his manly pride, engages in a brutal knife-fight with two assailants. I saved it for the end, though. Before that, there were other things to discuss, such as being chased through the Russian countryside by angry dogs, finding the humor in horror, and why Mortensen and Cronenberg enjoy the perfect symbiotic relationship.
EASTERN PROMISES is a gloriously dark and compelling thriller that plays cat and mouse with its audience the way that the characters involved play cat and mouse with each other. The tension, though, in this well-plotted suspense yarn arises not so much from the evil that the villains purvey, it’s the way that the underworld lurks in plain sight side-by-side with the normal world, ready and willing to prey on the innocent if they make one wrong decision, one wrong move, such as, say, noticing that it exists. The most unnerving moment in a film filled with them is when the ordinary middle-class types who have innocently found themselves tangling with the Russian mob realize that the 14-year-old victim of said mob whom they’ve discovered was herself once just as ordinary as they are. Director David Cronenberg has explored similar territory before with THE HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, but with PROMISES he exchanges the arch, if highly effective, artificiality of that film with a gritty, more visceral world.
The sequence that deservedly garners the greatest attention is the one in the steam baths where, for reasons best left unsaid, Nikolai without so much as a towel to cover his manhood or a weapon to defend it, is set upon by two knife-wielding mobsters. The frank eroticism of the actor’s beautiful physique, played up by the lack of any coy camera angles used in filming Mortensen in the altogether, is brilliantly juxtaposed with the violence involved and the gore it entails, all the while combining those elements with visual cues that provoke the subconscious — the physical contact, the overpowering, the penetration. Cronenberg here is at his twisted, brilliant best creating a horrifying montage from which it is impossible to turn away, tapping in as it does to something primal and dark and deeply disquieting.
That sums up EASTERN PROMISES as a whole. Beneath the suspense, there is a stark morality tale, filmed with elegance and style, but written in blood.