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.
Suitably enough for a film about gangsters and family, it all begins in blood — a murder and a birth whose connection will be shortly made clear. The former is committed by a son at the behest of his father and the gentle, ironic chiding of the unwitting victim. The latter is attended by Anna (Naomi Watts), a London midwife working through her own issues, who takes a diary from the mother’s effects after she dies. The diary is in Russian, and while Anna can slightly understand the spoken language, thanks to her late Russian father and her bombastic living uncle, Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski), but she can’t read the Cyrillic alphabet. Using the business card for a Russian restaurant she finds in the diaries pages as a clue, she meets the upscale establishment’s owner, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), whose grandfatherly charm doesn’t quite ring true, especially when he shows a sliver too much interest in the dead woman’s diary. His offer to translate it himself after Anna’s uncle refuses isn’t so much a favor as an order, albeit one masked delivered with elaborate politeness and a charming smile, and one with serious consequences for being refused. It’s the same politeness found in Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), Semyon’s driver, who throughout the course of the film flirts with Anna, tries to warn her off, but has no problem making dire threats to her loved ones. When not driving, Nikolai’s more onerous duties include keeping a reign on Simyon’s wastrel son, Kirill (Vincent Cassal) and cleaning up the messes he leaves behind. No one except Anna is quite who they appear to be, player and played, master and servant, with the audience sometimes tipped off about a twist that’s coming, and Cronenberg making that anticipation every bit as nerve-wracking as any of the mysteries revealed here.
Nikolai is the central enigma. Brooding and charismatic, perfectly groomed in sleek suits and even sleeker hair, sublimely unruffled, whether removing the teeth and fingertips from a corpse, the better to keep its identity unknown, or being asked to perform sexually with a prostitute for Kirill’s amusement, thereby humoring the palpable homoerotic undercurrent to Kirill’s attachment to him. Mortensen uses a precise economy in his performance that emphasizes rather than undercuts Nikolai’s roiling inner life of enormous Slavic melancholy mixed with a broad dash of humor of the same Slavic vintage. Cassal, as Nikolai’s polar opposite in everything including Semyon’s esteem, goes for broke with a blazing insanity mirrored in those huge pale eyes, infusing a giddiness to Kirill’s impulsive lack of self control in any given situation, finding the arrested emotional development in a little boy who lost his father’s affection and is still trying to win it back.
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.