From the moment he stepped on screen in Eastern Promises I was prepared to despise the Russian hood Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). His predatory look, his sneer, his cold personality, his Russianness - they should have been painfully out of place on a London street and yet, Nikolai swaggers like he owns the block.
He doesn't, though.
It is the cheerful, sophisticated, humble, grandfatherly restaurateur Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who is in charge. And his alcoholic, psychotic, needy son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) who executes the dirty work.
So who is Nikolai?
That is what hospital midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) wonders, too, after she inherits the diary of a young teenage Russian prostitute who dies during a miscarriage in which the baby survives. Anna's first impressions of Nikolai, and not without reason, are dismal. His first attempt at smoothness and flirtation comes off smarmy and clumsy, a parochial characterization.
The diary, it turns out, is a ticking bomb (and a clue to the movie's title) as is the baby.
But then, so is Nikolai a ticking bomb.
Mortensen's character does the skilful cinematic equivalent of an intellectual striptease during the course of this story. Slowly, ever so slowly, bits of my first impression are stripped away, destroyed. In the end, Nikolai is nothing at all like I first imagined, and yet he is all that I imagined.
He is indeed a hardened criminal, a tattooed graduate of the Russian prison system, a stone-cold killer. The movies most-heralded scene - the fight for his life in a steam room shows that Nikolai knows how to kill. And yet he can exhibit the most unexpected and inexplicable acts of compassion, a betrayal of the dossier moviegoers are quietly assembling on Nikolai.
There are reasons, which shall not be betrayed here.
In the end, Nikolai sits in the same booth from which Semyon held forth over his domain of drugs, prostitutes, weapons and shakedowns and thoughtfully flips back and forth in his hand some beads. His suit has been upgraded a few notches and he looks smoother than the character we first met.
The movie ends, and I am left wondering just what it is that Nikolai is really up to. (OK, so maybe I still don't trust him.)
In a recent phone conversation, Mortensen said that maybe that ambiguity isn't so bad.
"Well, that's one sign that it was a good story, well-told," he said, "the fact that you even have the questions. With Eastern Promises, I think each time you see it you see more and you have more questions."
And with exquisite timing, Mortensen pauses then adds, "And I'm not going to tell you what he was thinking.
"I know what he was thinking, obviously, but it's good that you wonder, you know?"
It is good and you better get used to the moral ambiguity because David Cronenberg, who directed this story (and directed Mortensen in A History of Violence) is all about moral ambiguity. There is good and evil, but they can, and do overlap - just like in real life.
"Intentionally, David put me in the same booth where Armin was sitting before - sort of in the same position, also with a newspaper, also with a bottle of vodka and with a suit, and with a particular colour of tie to symbolize his ascension, I guess.
"In a way, I think one feeling you get from it - I did - is beware of what you wish for, you know, because I mean, now what? And what's good about this movie - in the same sense as History of Violence was good and satisfying - on an artistic level is that at the end of the story you feel that it will continue."
OK, don't start squealing "Sequel!" All Mortensen is saying is that "the movie asks a lot of questions. It doesn't give you answers. You have to think for yourself and I think that's the highest form of respect you can pay an audience member."
The questions tumble from the mind of viewers. Will Nikolai be content to continue the deadly charade that has brought him to this point of power? Will Nikolai distance himself from the life that took him into Russian prisons and out again? Does power corrupt? Is Nikolai a man of integrity or a man of opportunity?
Will Mortensen revisit the character Nikolai in a sequel some day?
"It's funny because there are several people that have asked that and I think they've asked David. And he's even sort of jokingly asked me, and maybe he's even thinking about it.
"You could easily carry on. I mean, just as you could with History of Violence, but especially with this, you know? On some level like, is it Bourne Ultimatum? What's going to happen next?"
I know so many people who left the theatre asking that very same question - what happens next? And it's clear Mortensen has been putting a lot of thought into the matter. The possible extensions of the story come tumbling out with little provocation:
"You could - I don't know, Nikolai could go to Russia to hide out or he could - who knows what? Or Armin gets out of jail, what's he going to do? Or even from jail, who is he going to direct to try to regain what was his, or to exact revenge?
"How safe is the uncle? How safe is Anna? What is Kirill - Vincent's character - what's he going to think? How long is it going to take him to realize that in some sense he's been betrayed? Or used. I mean, all of those things. I mean, it's true. There are a lot of possibilities. You could tell any number of stories about it."
And Mortensen isn't coy about a sequel.
"If he (Cronenberg) came up with a really good story idea, why the hell not?," he says with a little laugh. "It might be interesting."
Interesting? Without a doubt.