This review was written for the festival screening of "Eastern Promises."
Toronto International Film Festival
SAN FRANCISCO -- Ultraviolent, gruesome and riveting, David Cronenberg's trangressive crime drama, "Eastern Promises," may be one of the director's best recent films. Engineering the cliches of the gangster genre for their own purposes, Cronenberg and screenwriter Steve Knight masterfully orchestrate an atmosphere of danger and dread for a descent into an underworld inhabited by the Russian mafia in London. That tension is maintained is quite a trick given the presence of stock characters and a script that telegraphs where it's going at the midpoint. A mood of pervasive malevolence and performances by Naomi Watts and Viggo Mortensen certainly make it worth the ride.
Arriving after the success of "A History of Violence," "Promises" will likely cross over and draw audiences beyond the art house crowd. A climactic scene, in which a naked, tattooed Mortensen slugs it out with hit-men in a steam bath and stabs one in the eye, is sure to generate word of mouth.
Like the previous film, this one opens with a casual opera of bloodshed: A man's throat is slashed in a barber shop and a mysterious pregnant girl, Tatiana, collapses in a pharmacy, blood flowing down her legs. At the hospital, she dies giving birth to a baby who comes under the protective care of Anna (a luminous Watts). A naive midwife, Anna begins an ill-advised investigation into Tatiana's origins, thereby putting herself in jeopardy.
Tatiana's diary leads Anna to Russian restaurant owner, Semyon, a silky-voiced, mafia boss (Armin Mueller-Stahl, doing a variation on the grandfatherly Nazi, sadist-in sheep's-clothing he has played before). As she soon learns, the diary implicates Semyon in the rape of the underage Tatiana, an act he committed in front of Kirell (a rabid Vincent Cassel), his vicious, psycho son.
There's a glimmer of attraction between Anna, a Madonna figure, and Nikolai (Mortensen), a sinister mob enforcer, who's rising in the ranks. Speaking in a Russian accent and sleek as an eel in head-to-toe Armani, Nikolai dons black leather gloves, a must-have accessory for snipping off fingertips of murder victims and dispatching them to the murky depths of the Thames.
Mortensen, acting the flip side of his character in "A History of Violence," where he was a seemingly regular guy whose shady past and violent proclivities caught up to him, here, playing an angel of death with an unexpected capacity for mercy, is a better man than he initially appears. The actor, whose natural reserve serves him well in the role, has a plausible if low-key chemistry with Watts.
The main event, though, is graphic brutality. Shot in harsh, unforgiving light in claustrophobic settings, several scenes, including a degrading one in a brothel, where Nikolai is forced to prove his manhood with a young prostitute drugged into submission, are guaranteed to make the audience squirm.
To enjoy "Promises" one has to buy into its artificial, hermetically sealed universe. Perpetually enveloped in darkness, London never looked gloomier. Cronenberg's signature palette of slate grays and artery red, rendered by veteran production designer Carol Spier, and Peter Suschitzky's spooky cinematography enhance the uncanny sensation that the film is unfolding within the confines of a distorted psyche rather than being rooted in a known, tangible reality. And what a foul, menacing terrain it is.
A Focus Features presentation in association with BBC Films of a Kudos Pictures/Serendipity Point Films production in association with Scion Films
Director: David Cronenberg
Writer: Steve Knight
Producer: Paul Webster, Robert Lantos
Executive producer: Stephen Garrett, David M. Thompson, Jeff Abberley, Julia Blackman
Director of photography: Peter Suschitzky
Production designer: Carol Spier
Music: Howard Shore
Co-producer: Tracey Seaward
Costume designer: Denise Cronenberg
Editor: Ronald Sanders
Nikolai: Viggo Mortensen
Anna: Naomi Watts
Kirill: Vincent Cassel
Semyon: Armin Mueller-Stahl
Running time -- 100 minutes
MPAA rating: R