The summer of the awkward teenage boy is over: bring on the rough-jawed paragons of manhood. Russell Crowe and Christian Bale in "3:10 to Yuma" did dapper & deadly and noble & haggard so well they almost made the film’s preposterous conclusion work, while Clive Owen in "Shoot ‘Em Up" showed off an ability to repel bullets with the force of his bad attitude. But none have anything on Viggo Mortensen as Russian mob enforcer Nikolai in "Eastern Promises," a man pickled in Slavic world-weariness, a man who can put a cigarette out on his tongue while cutting the fingers off a corpse before dumping it and make the gesture look nigh charming, a man who turns out to have a squishily honorable heart.
"Eastern Promises" is a sleek, claustrophobic thriller that’s disappointing only because it’s the follow-up to "A History of Violence," David Cronenberg‘s brilliant, bruising genre-smasher about our love affair with righteous brutality. Like "A History of Violence," "Eastern Promises" finds Cronenberg making only half an effort to color within the lines of a mainstream film, in this case one about how Anna (Naomi Watts), a London midwife, follows information in the diary left behind by a 14-year-old Russian girl who dies giving birth in the emergency room, and find herself tangling with a circle of Russian mobsters, the vory v zakone. The tone is once again intriguingly off, removed and almost arch, though this time without any placeable purpose â€” whatever is underneath the surface of "Eastern Empire," it stays there, out of reach.
Anna is the film’s wide-eyed Alice, stumbling into an Russian expat underground of both flesh and blood and crime families headed by deceptively twinkly patriarch Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), whose son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel),
is an unpredictable, sodden mess relying heavily on the help and
enforced friendship of his driver, Nikolai. Anna, still yearning for her late father, himself Russian, is at first
drawn to Semyon, who spots her vulnerability but not her reckless
determination. He learns that the diary includes incriminating tales
about himself and his son, and dispatches Nikolai to retrieve it.
Nikolai is nursing a few agendas of his own â€” how apparent they are was a point of debate amongst those we saw the film with, but we’d seen them coming from further off than we’d have liked. Kirill is Nikolai’s in with the vory v zakone â€” Cassel, not one to leave scenery unchewed, presents Kirill as both
demanding and dramatically insecure, his sexuality an unspoken barrier
to his success, and Nikolai must be at once his confidante, servant and sublimated lover while simultaneously proving his value to Semyon. The hypermasculine old world of the Russian mafia is a kind of sterile marriage, a point hammered in with no excess of subtlety in the film. Nikolai is presented to the family heads in nothing but briefs so that they can scrutinize his tattoos, and his cautious courting of Kirill is rewarded by the nude bathhouse assassination attempt scene that’s justifiably talked-about, a scene exhilarating in its corporeal clumsiness, men grappling each other to the death without the benefit of elegant choreography.
No one does violence like Cronenberg, and from the opening scene, in which a throat is sloppily sawed open, "Eastern Promises" is alive with an agitated awareness that people are all just assailable, fragile flesh. That fact, along with Mortensen’s slyly soulful performance, make it more of a shame that story and screenplay, written by "Dirty Pretty Things"‘ Steven Knight, is so unexceptional, a workmanlike passage through another of London’s unseen microcosms underlined by the film’s strangest choice, segments from the diary of the dead Russian girl describing her descent into forced prostitution and drug use, dictated in a heavily accented voice-over backed with sad string music. These moments are so blunderous you suspect that Cronenberg has some other, more subversive agenda in mind. But what? The title turns out to be accurate; "Eastern Promises" presages more than it delivers.
"Eastern Promises" opens September 14th.
+ "Eastern Promises" (Focus Features)