In 2005, director David Cronenberg released A History of Violence, a clear departure from the "venereal horror" niche the helmer had carved for himself. A departure foreshadowed, perhaps, by the character-driven but not-so-gory Spider in 2002. Eastern Promises adds to the mounting evidence that Cronenberg can handle the crime drama with as much depth of character and visceral punch as he did horror.
Naomi Watts plays Anna, a midwife living in London who tries to find the family of a baby whose teenage mother died in childbirth on her watch. Her investigation leads her into the world of the Russian mob, introducing her to restaurant-owner/crime lord Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel), and their "undertaker" Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). Sexual tension and really bloody retribution ensues.
As with most Cronenberg, character drives the action. Nikolai's magnetic calm belies a tortured past. Anna's family history (and unbelievably racist uncle) underlie her altruistic intentions for the baby. Kirill's demons inform complex relationships between him, his father, and Nikolai.
And the action is brutal.
By now you may have heard rumors about a naked bath house fight scene in which Nikolai goes all sickhouse on some assassins. It lives up to the hype.
Everyone here is in top form, but Mueller-Stahl stands out as the quintessence of evil while Mortensen turns in another top-notch performance for Cronenberg, following up his nuanced turn in Violence.
Tying it all up in a neat bow is a screenplay from Dirty Pretty Things scribe Steven Knight, who might be looking at another Best Original Screenplay nod if I have anything to do with it, which I don't.
If you liked A History of Violence, you're not going to think of this flick as a breakthrough, but you'll definitely be disappointed if you miss it, the next step in Cronenberg's evolution as a filmmaker.