Eastern Promises (Canada/U.K., 2007) * * * 1/2
D: David Cronenberg
Cronenberg has always been in favor with the critics, it seems, but nevertheless experienced a career re-estimation with the release of his last film, A History of Violence. A tightly-contained thriller with a superb central performance by Viggo Mortensen while containing the cerebral qualities typical of Cronenberg's extremely intellectual body of work, it felt like a breakthrough in the esteemed Canadian director's career. I felt that the film was overly schematized, with the characters often behaving more like elements in Cronenberg's theorem than as human beings; still, the film still haunted me, and I was certainly held in its thrall for its length. To my mind, his follow-up, Eastern Promises (from screenwriter Steven Knight, who wrote Dirty Pretty Things), is a superior effort, a near-perfect thriller that also happens to work on the rigorously philosophical level as Cronenberg's best films. Best of all, the characters behave like humans, and not according to the conventions of thriller plotting, or the diagrams to accompany a Cronenberg thesis.
To give too much of the plot away would be to spoil the extremely high level of tension which Cronenberg sustains throughout the film's relatively brisk running time. Here is the set-up: Russian mobster Kirill (Vincent Cassel) orders a hit--carried out by an old barber and his retarded assistant--which will have bloody consequences later in the film. Meanwhile, a fourteen-year-old Russian girl dies while giving birth, and Anna (Naomi Watts), the nurse who witnesses her death, decides to save the baby from foster care by tracking down her relatives through the girl's diary. First she needs to get the diary translated, so she first tries her uncle--and then, when he proves stubborn, Semyon, the owner of a Russian restaurant (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who also happens to be, though she doesn't know it, the mob boss and the father of Kirill. Kirill's driver, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), is attracted to Anna, and even fixes her motorcycle, though she keeps a wary distance; Nikolai is also edging out Kirill in the affections of Semyon. Soon the diary proves to contain incriminating information on the Mafia, and Anna realizes the mistake she's made by going to Semyon for help. Her only ally may be the morally ambiguous Nikolai, but neither she--nor we--understand his true intentions.
There are twists and turns, but perhaps less than in a standard Hollywood thriller. Instead, the plot is stripped down to its essentials. Part of what makes Eastern Promises so unique is its structure: although it's a genre film, the plot reveals itself organically, so that not a moment feels contrived; furthermore, the MacGuffin--the diary--emerges only slowly rather than straight away, and one crucial piece of information, which would, in most thrillers, be divulged at the beginning of the film, is here withheld until almost the very end. By withholding that piece of information (which I won't spoil), the film gains an almost unsettling tension because you can't predict exactly where the story is going or what the characters will do. Although there is a bloody, nude knife battle in a spa which has already become the toast of the critics (so that I can't spoil because you already know about it), it is not precisely the climax of the film; that honor belongs to an understated final standoff which has as much to do with the emotional bonds of the characters--and their sublimated motives and feelings--than it does traditional genre tropes. There is very little action in Eastern Promises, although there are sporadic moments of intense violence. This is a thriller that is more concerned with concepts like personal history and destiny--both written literally on the skin--and the radical notion that sometimes home is not a safe and sanitized destination, but a step backward into Hell.