Directed with considerable formal intelligence and brooding power by David Cronenberg, Eastern Promises is very much a companion to A History of Violence. Both are crime thrillers that allow Viggo Mortensen to play a morally ambiguous and severely divided, if not schizoid, action-hero savior, and both are commissioned works that permit hired-gun Cronenberg to make a genre film that is actually something else. Graphic but never gratuitous in its violence, Eastern Promises unfolds mainly in a demimonde of Russian émigré thugs and whore masters. Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife in a London hospital, delivers a baby as the mother, a 14-year-old prostitute, dies in childbirth. Anna filches the girls diary, hoping to discover who she is, and asks her irascibly inebriated uncle to translate. Do you always rob the bodies of the dead? he asks in a question that will hang over the rest of the movie. A business card found in the diary leads Anna to the London branch of the Gulag-spawned criminal fraternity vory v zakone (thieves in law). This isnt our world we are ordinary people, her anxious mother (Sinead Cusack) warns her. As usual in Cronenberg, the ordinary is severely contested terrain, especially when it comes to the crime familys chauffeur, Nikolai (Mortensen), a superbly complicated character dark, diffident, cynical, hyper-alert, and tough enough to humorously stub out a cigarette on his tongue. Is our Nikolai an angel or the devil? And what if that amounts to the same thing?
David CronenbergViggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Sinéad Cusack, Jerzy SkolimowskiSteve KnightPaul Webster, Robert LantosFocus Features