There's a scene toward the end of David Cronenberg's new film, Eastern Promises, that should have something for everyone. In it, Viggo Mortensen fends off two knife-wielding Chechnyan thugs in a Turkish bath wearing nothing but his tattoos. Yes, brutal, unequivocal violence for the fellas and the occasional shot of Mortensen's junk--much in demand since Lord of the Rings--for their dates.
But this is a David Cronenberg film, and the scene is more horrifying than exciting or titillating. It's just hard to watch, as men are hurt or killed in unfathomably painful ways. His brand of violence is brutal and unflinching. When the film leads with a Russian mobster getting his head halfway sawed off, you know that the possibility of great pain and bloodletting is always bubbling under the surface. It makes for a menacing experience, evidenced by Mortensen's Nikolai, who is always calm and controlled, making him more terrifying because you don't know how far he'll go.
We encounter Nikolai after London midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) watches an unidentified Russian teenager bleed to death in her delivery room. The baby, a little girl, survives, and armed with the mother's diary, Anna goes searching for someone who might help her translate the book and track down the poor girl's family. Sadly, she finds help in the form of Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a kindly restaurateur who also serves as the patriarch of a Russian mob clan whose specialties include smuggling smack, low-cost body modification and importing young Eastern-bloc girls for personal use. Semyon might be a terrific cook, but his kindly grandfather exterior belies a horrifying interior. He's capable of savage acts of violence, and even if you don't see him actually perform any nasty acts, Mueller-Stahl is good enough that you just know it's true. He may not be Brando, but he has the Godfather thing down--all family and loyalty, backstabbings and treachery.
Nikolai is a soldier in Semyon's ranks, chauffering around the mob boss' out-of-control son, Kirill (Vincent Cassell), cleaning up when necessary and generally trying to move up through the ranks. Mortenson, with his pale blue eyes, furrowed brow and generous cheekbones, makes Nikolai as cold as ice, casually dismembering a frozen corpse with disturbing professionalism. But he also has a soft side--a gangster with a heart of gold, as it were. He might be a thug, but he is not unjust, and you can read the pain some of his actions cause him; like the suits he wears, he keeps his emotions buttoned up, always in check.
Eastern Promises looks, on the surface, to be about the same things as A History of Violence, which first teamed this actor and this director and was an examination of the ordinary person entering a world of vice and violence that they have no place being in. Eastern Promises is different, though, because we're less interested in the ordinary people. The real movie is all about Nikolai, and while Anna and the orphan are the door into his world, we're more interested in what Nikolai's true motives are than what will happen to Anna and her family. Sadly, when we find out, it actually makes Eastern Promises more of a standard crime thriller than what the rest of the film promises, but a Cronenberg crime thriller is still, for the most part, anything but standard.
The director is still making the same kind of mean, dark movie he started his career with--the sort of movie Hollywood moved away from years ago in the hopes of gaining a PG-13 rating and conquering the foreign market. The violence is serious and unpleasant, as people take knives to the eye at close range. But Eastern Promises is no action film--the violence is no fun to watch. It looks terribly painful, both to the victim and the perpetrator. The film looks terrific, with a casually gritty, highbrow feel, steeped in cigarette smoke and vodka. When Nikolai tells Anna to 'stay away from people like me,' you sort of wish she would, as the ceremony of his entrance into the family is far more interesting and disturbing than her sitting around the table with her mother, bemoaning Christmas.
Watts brings her restless energy to the role, but a hinted-at storyline of her embracing her Russian roots (she's something of a non-practicing Cossack) never comes to fruition. Cronenberg and Mortensen are a good match for one another, as Mortensen, perhaps not the most talented actor in the world, has those mournful, pained eyes that Cronenberg uses to express so much without using words. Long an explorer of the painful, skeevy side of life, the director seems to have found a cohort in Mortensen, much as Scorsese keeps going back to the well that is Leonardo DiCaprio. Except that Scorsese never had Leo snip the fingers off a cadaver with shears, a convention left to the likes of Cronenberg and friends.