Directed by: David Cronenberg
Written by: Steven Knight
Eastern Promises opens in the rain—oh, David Cronenberg's in London again. This time, though, instead of dealing with the mentally ill and the ghosts that haunt them, as he did in Spider, he takes on the Russians, both assimilated, in the form of midwife Naomi Watts (whose character just broke up with her, gulp, black boyfriend), and unassimilated, in the form of the Russian Mafia (none of whom is black).
There seems to be a general trend with this movie's reception: those who did not much care for Cronenberg's previous, ahem, masterwork A History of Violence are singing its praises, while fans of that film are, by and large, disappointed by Eastern Promises; forgive the conformity and predictability, but I fall into that latter camp. In one crucial way, Eastern Promises is the opposite of its predecessor: though both star Viggo Mortensen, A History of Violence was about a inarguably great guy who turned out to have an evil (that is, violent) side, while Eastern Promises is about a manifest bad guy who in fact turns out to be good. Doesn't Cronenberg know that a transformation into wickedness is far more fascinating, and universally compelling, than a turn to virtue? That's how they sell newspapers, anyway.
But it's not really Cronenberg who's primarily to blame for Eastern Promises' disappointment; if anything, it's only by his graces that the film has any merit. The problem lies with the screenplay by Steven Knight—who's credited, among some film scripts, with creating the television series Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (albeit the original British version)—which tells a pretty straightforward Hollywood story while lacking a clear hero; Mortensen's character is so steely, demonstrating his callous nature by showing off his callous tongue, which he uses to extinguish a cigarette, that he pushes the viewer away, and while Watts would ordinarily be a proper audience surrogate she is reduced to a practically marginal character. That is to say, the story is a bit unfocused, offering the viewer no way in and nothing to hold on to. You could sympathize with Viggo's wondrous everyman in History and then take his unraveling roller coaster ride with him, but Eastern Promises leaves you out in the rain from frame one.
In a way, Eastern Promises picks up where History of Violence left off; in the latter, a single act of violence set off an uncontrollable chain, the point being that violence begets violence, in a domino effect of increasing severity. In Eastern Promises, the chain has already been set off long ago, and the world Cronenberg sets up is one already mired in violence, as we learn from the opening scene that features a graphic, as is Cronenberg's custom, throat slicing at a barbershop. (Worst shave ever!)
In the following scene, a pregnant woman collapses in a(n?) Аптека and later dies; Watts is able to save her baby, though, who, born around Christmas, is named Christina. (Like Children of Men, this is a very Catholic film about hope for the future built on the ashes of a corrupted past.) The dead girl left behind a diary, unfortunately written in Cyrillic, that Watts' thick-accented uncle, the Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski, warns her to stay away from. "Bury the secrets with the body," he advises but she, unwilling to heed such good advice, goes poking her nose into places it doesn't belong (smelling, as this is a film about Russians, borscht, among other things) and she, like her character in Mulholland Dr., is thrust into an indismissable mystery.
Despite strong supporting performances from Armin Mueller-Stahl and, especially, Vincent Cassell as Mortensen's underworld cohorts, the mystery is unremarkable, the characters virtually arc-less, and Eastern Promises peters out to an unnecessary twist that manages to refute any measure of complexity which the film had, to then, been building. (SPOILER: It's a poorly paced and misstructured Donnie Brasco! A sudden reversal of character doesn't pass for character development END SPOILER.) At least, with Cronenberg at the helm, we get a naked fight scene in the Finsbury Baths that does for violent action what Borat's infamous and analogous fight scene did for hilarity.