2007; Director: David Cronenberg; Writer: Steve Knight
With Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Sinead Cusack, Jerzy Skolimowski
Available Dec. 25, List Price $29.98
After three decades of auteuring his own, exemplarily weird melodramas (mostly horror movies: Rabid, Videodrome, The Fly). Cronenberg worked as director only on A History of Violence, about a quiet, small-town businessman (Mortensen) whom some visiting thugs say is a mob enforcer back in the big city, and the effect this has on his family, The movie compiled a heap of critics' prizes and two Oscar nominations. His followup, Eastern Promises, earned an Oscar nomination for Mortensen, again in the lead role. He's becoming Cronenberg's De Niro.
The picture was written by Steve Knight, author of the multi-ethnic London underworld drama Dirty Pretty Things, and it has a lot in common with that movie and with A History of Violence. As in Dirty Pretty Things, this film is set in immigrant London this time, members of the Russian diaspora, some honest, most not. And like A History of Violence, it's about a mysterious gunman and his connection with an ordinary family drawn into the web of mob intrigue. Anna (Watts) is a half-Russian midwife who's come into possession of a diary whose secrets could bring down the gang empire run by restaurateur Semyon (Mueller-Stahl). She makes the mistake of giving the diary, which she can't read, to Semyon, and he assigns Nikolai (Mortensen), a hit man new to the gang, to keep an eye and a heavy hand on the midwife.
Eastern Promises (a flaccid title for such a taut film) has some sensational set pieces: a barber-shop murder in the first few minutes, and a long, brutal fight in a bathhouse between Mortensen and two thugs; they're armed, he's naked. But at heart it's a two-family drama, one being Anna's sensible English aunt (Cusack) and crabby Russian uncle (Skolimowski), the other Semyon and his son Kirill (Cassel). Kirill is like a mutant Corleone: he has Sonny's hair-trigger impulses and Fredo's drug-addled weak streak, stemming from a need to be respected by his father and from Kirill's realization that he's not measuring up that Nikolai may be usurping his spot as No. 1 Son.
The movie doesn't rise above its genre conventions so much as it burrows into them, finding complexities and contradictions in the standard tropes. You'll learn plenty about the perils of disappointing a strong patriarch, not to mention the iconography of Russian gangland tattoos. Cronenberg orchestrates all this, and his dedicated cast, to turn out an exercise that is brisk, dark, compelling good, rough, serious fun.
The skimpy extras detail the film's shooting and fill you in on the tattoos.