When David Cronenberg pulled the crime thriller A History of Violence out of his hat in 2005, he emerged from one of the most prolonged slumps in modern moviemaking. He was back. At the time, the director announced that he would return to his horror roots with his next project, based on a script he’d written called Painkillers. That film never got made, and I think it’s understandable that Cronenberg should have second thoughts and elect to stick with the genre that was suddenly working for him. Set in London, as opposed to small-town Millbrook, Indiana, Eastern Promises may look nothing like his previous picture. But, on closer inspection, it can be seen as the same movie turned inside out.
Once again, Viggo Mortensen stars. This time around, he plays the driver for the head of a Russian crime family, nicknamed The Undertaker because, in addition to his duties behind the wheel, he’s responsible for preparing the bodies of victims for disposal in the Thames. Fingers, for example, must be removed so police won’t have prints to trace should a corpse ever wash ashore. In an early scene, we watch Mortensen snip at a cadaver as casually as a gardener might at a rose bush. Like his character in A History of Violence, he has a secret. It isn’t revealed until about two-thirds of the way through the movie, and it wouldn’t be right to reveal it here at all.
Life as a dapper foot soldier with ice water in his veins gets complicated for Mortensen when a motorcycle-riding midwife crosses his path. Naomi Watts costars as a hospital worker who’s delivered the baby of an underage, drug-addicted immigrant. The girl died in childbirth and left behind a diary Watts believes may contain the whereabouts of her family. In it she finds a business card, which leads her to a restaurant presided over by a grandfatherly Armin Mueller-Stahl. She asks him to translate the journal for her. Mueller-Stahl is only too happy to oblige, as he is actually the Russian crime boss for whom Mortensen works, and he knows what the dead girl wrote could put him behind bars for the rest of his days.
The driver and the midwife are immediately drawn to each other, though the movie has no time to waste on romance. Of more concern to Cronenberg is his depiction of the Russian gangland milieu, much of which will be familiar to fans of the Godfather films. The main differences between Italian mob life and Russian mob life, we learn, are that Russians favor sex slavery over illegal substances and extortion; members are given tattoos instead of private parties when they become made men; and fathers, rather than doting on their sons, are prone to kicking them in the stomach without mercy. True, Vincent Cassel does play the mobster’s heir as such a loathsome, self-pitying sack of borscht that maybe the old man’s not quite out of bounds. Cassel’s character recalls a more alcoholic, sociopathic Fredo.
Apart from Mortensen’s brutal, already legendary steambath fight scene, most of Eastern Promises is devoted to mood, atmosphere and detail. The performances are uniformly fine, but the script by Steven (Dirty Pretty Things) Knight is borderline minimalist. Sure, there are throat slittings and eye gougings — but this is a David Cronenberg film. He’d figure out a way to work those in if he were remaking Heidi.
Light on plot, the picture also stumbles onto implausible ground here and there. For example, Mueller-Stahl orders the murder of one character simply for knowing the diary exists. Yet, when Watts brazenly shows up at his restaurant and announces she knows it contains evidence of the old man’s crimes, she gets to go on her merry way.
To be sure, there are far less entertaining ways to spend a couple of hours at the cineplex. Promises has its moments — and several remarkable ones at that. I’m just not convinced it’s the equal of the director’s previous film, and I’m inclined to think the time has come for David Cronenberg to put mainstream thrillers aside and get back to making the brainy brand of horror films that made his name. The audiences might be smaller, but something tells me the artistic pay-off would be huge.