"Eastern Promises" is the latest film by David Cronenberg, Master of the Uncomfortable, Enemy to the Squeamish. As with "A History of Violence" his star of choice is Viggo Mortenson, who after years of "body in a suit" roles where he barely registered, became a star with the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. His post-"Ring" choices have been interesting, including two films by Cronenberg where he could use his inscrutable demeanor to maximum advantage. His Nikolai--ostensibly "The Driver," but to others, "The Undertaker"--is a lieutenant in the Russian mob in contemporary London. His boss is Kirill (Vincent Cassell), the unreliable son of Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), owner of the Trans-Siberian supper club, and "King" of the mob. There are many facades in "Eastern Promises," whether they're legitimate businesses that front prostitution, or the quaint grandfatherly demeanor that Semyon presents. *
Into this world of death comes mid-wife Anna (Anna Ivanovna as Semyon, from the old country, calls her) who oversees the birth of a baby girl to a heroin addict who dies in childbirth. Trying to return the child to relatives, Anna takes the girl's diary to try and gleen any information from it. As it's written in Russian, she turns to the Russian community for help. Her timing couldn't be worse as warring factions are busy slitting the throats of their enemies and it's a world where innocence can be completely subsumed in everyone's search for "a better life."
Cronenberg doesn't make "feel-good" movies, and all of his films take you places you don't want to go. Fans of Viggo Mortenson will see this film and be nicely rewarded with a finely layered, laid-back performance using an accent that approaches parody. But be warned: It's a violent flick with two graphic throat-cuttings, a scene where a dead man's fingers are snipped off to prevent identification, and in the major set-piece of the film, Mortenson's Nikolai is attacked in a bathhouse by two toughs with box-cutters. Yes, ladies (and gentlemen), you get to see his package, but the price you pay is sitting through one of the crunchiest, gristleiest, gooiest fights in a long, long time.
But that's the price you pay.
"Eastern Promises" is a full price ticket
*The only truths are those tatooes into the bodies of the mobsters, from their days in the Russian work-camps--their lives, their stories are burned into their skin for all to see.