Many movies concern the mafia - and even more portray violence - but David Cronenberg's new film, Eastern Promises, thrives on a rushing pulse that prevents it from ever settling into the clichés of its genre. There is blood, assassination, and ruthlessness, but the movie presses on past the point of familiarity, and the novelty is only partly due to its Russian flavors. There is little that Cronenberg won't show, but the movie is so sharp and artful that, as graphic as it is, it cannot be mistaken for the work of an exhibitionist. This is certainly the effort of a master in control.
Take, for example, the moment when Nikolai Luzhin(Viggo Mortensen), the mafia's undertaker , declares that he is about to cut off the fingertips and remove the teeth of a dead man - a concept that in and of itself elicits disgust. Far from leaving this as a notion, Cronenberg films the "undertaker" picking up clippers, fastening them around a finger, pressing them, snapping off the fingertip, and finally, leaving a finger sans fingertip. It is a scene that, without context, might seem to come from a pulp horror movie, but in the midst of the film's severe and seething hellish atmosphere, the images are more than shocking - they are penetrating. Eastern Promises has a mood that lingers and might infuse your day with its unforgiving intensity.
It's the obligatory naïve outsider, Anna (Naomi Watts), who draws the movie into the world of the Russian mafia - the vory v zakone. An unknown teenage girl dies while giving birth, and Anna, her midwife, discovers on her body a diary full of secrets and a business card that leads her to the heart of the mafia. There, she finds the kindly Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the volatile Kirill (Vincent Cassel), and the cold, dry Nikolai. Eventually, none of these epithets fully apply, and the uncovering of the characters' personas is as compelling as the mystery of the dead girl, with whom they are, of course, entangled.
The dynamics within this vividly-etched crime family are a wonder to behold. The scenes involving Semyon, Nikolai, and Kirill in any combination exude true gravity and danger, rather than just drama. At first, the thick Russian accents and many lines in Russian are striking, but each actor imbues his character not only with the costume of a Russian, but with a distinct and credible set of motivations and methods. Though Anna, with her obvious decency, and Nikolai, with his more ambiguous loyalties, lend the film a moral compass, the film is as much about the operation of pride, desire, and values among the "evil," who come across as authentic personalities.
Together, the actors fashion an entire world where people have different reasons and do the unthinkable. In particular, watch for the much-mentioned fight in the bathhouse with Nikolai and two assassins. That, like much of the film, is uninhibited ferocity in its most poetic form.