David Cronenberg is messed up. As the modern “Baron of Blood,” Cronenberg has the capacity to unnerve his audience with the flip of a switchblade. He also has license to do pretty much whatever he wants when it comes to making films.
In a career spanning five decades, Cronenberg has gone from zombie films (“Shivers”) to science-fiction (“The Fly”) to something verging on the study of man (“A History of Violence”), with time to make a romance or two in the interim. It would be unfair to pigeonhole Cronenberg as an auteur in any one field, as his latest effort, “Eastern Promises,” clearly shows.
“Eastern Promises” is Cronenberg’s take on the mafia film. Rather than re-treading old ground, he decides to establish new territory by taking on one of the most mysterious and notorious ethnic gangs of all – the Russian mob.
Unlike other films of the genre, Cronenberg’s focus is not on the dealings of crime or the pursuit of material goods, but rather on pleasures of the flesh – a common thread through the course of his work.
The story concerns Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), a midwife who discovers the diary of a young teen, who died under her care while giving birth to a baby girl. Curious over the contents of the diary, Anna enlists the help of a seemingly innocent Russian man named Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) to help translate the writing from Russian to English. What she fails to realize is that Semyon is the leader of the infamous Vory V. Zakone criminal brotherhood and that he has his own personal ties to the contents of the diary.
Anna becomes unwillingly entwined in the workings of the mob, harassed at every turn by Semyon’s ruthless son and enforcer, Kirill (Vincent Cassel).
All the while, Kirill takes the brotherhood’s hardened chauffeur, Nikolai (Viggo Mortenson), under his wing. Nikolai’s allegiances are left unclear through Mortenson’s chillingly intense portrayal of a man with a deep foundation, as represented by the symbolic tattoos sprawled across his chiseled body. As Nikolai, Mortenson adds another level of depth to his burgeoning career and establishes himself as Cronenberg’s very own ball of clay.
It would be an injustice not to discuss the explosions of violence typical of Cronenberg’s films. There is no shortage this time around; including two graphic and completely unexpected throat cuttings (one of which gives new meaning to the term “close shave”), as well as a sauna knife fight for the ages. In the admittedly small realm of filmic sauna fights, this one takes the cake and leaves the viewer in a state somewhere between repulsed and invigorated.
The thing about violence in a Cronenberg film is that it is so painfully real that you feel almost guilty in watching it. Shame on you, David Cronenberg, for exposing our country’s unhealthy obsession with violence!
At points, the film slips in its study of the Russian underworld, but it is through the examination of the body and male aggression that the film is able to redeem itself.
In a world where you need to prove yourself by having sex with a prostitute or slicing the neck of a brother, Cronenberg exposes the sadism and brutality behind modern masculinity. It is through the treatment of the flesh, after all, that our most basic human desires are revealed.
But even in a group as notorious as the Russian mob – arguably the most assertive arena of manliness – Cronenberg is smart enough to realize that even thugs have a story to tell. Rating: 8/10.
Milbrand is a member of the class of 2008.