BY NEIL FAUERSO
For the past 30-odd years, David Cronenberg has been the grand explicator of the junctions between the grotesque and the spiritual, paranoia and true conspiracy. Even though his work this decade has moved away from his technological, sci-fi fetishes, his central concerns remain the same: the byways of sex and violence, control and gender, technology and capitalism. That his latest, Eastern Promises, contains such multitudes under the guise of a cracking good crime thriller is a testament to the aesthetic and intellectual mastery of Cronenberg.
The film begins with two spurts of blood. A Russian-mafia made man has his throat savagely slit in a barbershop. A few moments later a 14-year-old pregnant prostitute collapses in a drugstore, her placenta ruptured. The intertwining of these two events makes up the dark heart of Eastern Promises. The half-Russian midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) who delivers the prostitute’s child (who dies during childbirth) finds a diary on the body. This leads her to a swank Russian restaurant run by the kindly (yet deeply creepy) Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), his drunken short-fuse of a son Kirill (Vincent Cassel), and their steely-eyed driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). As Anna delves deeper into the mystery of the orphaned baby and the mafia behind it, she finds her compass of life shaken.
This simple plot devised by sharp and knowing writer Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things) provides a gripping framework. The depiction of the Russian mafia is the most believable I’ve seen in a Western film. From the lavish “family” dinners to the resonant and fearsome initiation/ tattoo scene, Eastern Promises’ lived-in knowledge of the Byzantine decorum and rules of organized crime are given both a gritty resonance and a mythic symbolism by Knight and Cronenberg. Cronenberg uses the mob and the archetypal tale of a child in peril as a launching point for his penetrating examination of transience, violence, and morality.
Viggo Mortensen’s (Cronenberg’s new favorite son) spot-on, brilliant Nikolai is both the negative and positive core of the film. Steely beyond belief, elegant yet coarse, proud and melancholic, Nikolai embodies the holographic fantasy of criminal chivalry and its nasty reality. The rest of the cast, in particular Vincent Cassel’s volatile, squirmy Kirill and Mueller-Stahl’s quiet menace are equally superb.
But, of course, the grand maestro is Cronenberg, whose stately, lush photography and pacing give the film a three-dimensionality and a surreal placidity that is nothing short of haunting. Quite simply, Cronenberg is at the top of his game. Starting with Spider in 2002, then A History of Violence in 2005 and now Eastern Promises, Cronenberg is crafting alchemic pop-art—gripping, erotic, brainy, and tough. He is among the globe’s most fascinating and impressive filmmakers. A