Sleek, lean and lethal, Nikolai Luzhin is a frighteningly efficient solider in the Vory V Salome, London’s Russian mafia. He’s the recent recipient of high honors, and he flaunts it with a body covered in imposing tattoos.
But such badges don’t matter when he’s stark naked in a Russian bathhouse and about to be butchered. Struggling and desperate, Nikolai must brawl with two bounty hunters coming at him with knives. Nikolai is scared, doggedly working to ensure his own life however he can.
Graphic and haunting, this may be the classic scene of “Eastern Promises,” the moment that will be immortalized later like the best of “Scarface” or “Fight Club.” It’s the climax of an unforgettable thriller from now-elder statesman David Cronenberg (“A History of Violence”), arguably his most accomplished work to date. A graphic gangland fantasia at surface level, “Eastern Promises” is a brutal, mournful observation of a man’s struggle for humanity among some of the most violent clans in the world.
This is, ultimately, the tragedy of Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen, “The Lord of the Rings” films). The movie opens as a 14-year-old girl dies during childbirth, leaving only the newborn and a diary. Anna Khitrova (an assured Naomi Watts, “King Kong”), a midwife, finds the girl’s writings and embarks on a search to find the newborn’s kin. In looking for answers, the diary becomes a gateway into a dangerous other world.
The diary unlocks a lifestyle of damaged souls driven by extreme behavior, desperate for feeling. Monstrous violence is tradition. Through the deals and drugs, the blood lingers and stains. Reinforced in the maudlin texture (be it the music, clothing or general ambience) of exported Russian culture, there’s a pervasive feeling of loss. When Nikolai must dispose of a body in a clean, technical fashion, it’s a perfect representation of his mental state; fingers are clipped off, the body is mutilated for disposal, but the tone is numb, completely turned off from the ghastliness at hand. The same could be said for Nikolai.
Mortensen’s Nikolai is a rich, heavy, devastating character study. This is a labyrinthine man, bold and damaged. He’s the real deal, and “Eastern Promises” becomes Nikolai’s film. A man with no past and a shaky future, Nikolai is a brooding, calculating assassin – at least on the surface.
As soon as he hits the screen, his cool is tested. He’s calm, collected and seemingly capable of anything – this guy can put out a cigarette on his tongue. But as Nikolai’s character is fleshed out, sadness rises to the surface. Regret, worry and the longing for an alternative become clear. As with other tragic heroes like Macbeth or even Tony Soprano, this is a man whose intricate power becomes a burden. He loses his gangster mantra when you realize he isn’t one. He’s just another person, and he’s as scared as anyone.
All of this is not to say this is a star vehicle. “Eastern Promises” is very much David Cronenberg’s movie, and that is never in question. The hardcore elements of his early works (“The Brood,” “Scanners”) dovetail with the dramatic nuances of his recent “A History of Violence,” which leads to filmmaking mature and intelligent but also fierce and unrestrained. With heavy violence early on, Cronenberg shocks to intrigue and lures you into a seedy, layered underworld.
“Eastern Promises” is a rare experience, hard-driving and masterful. It’ll gnaw at you. Violent and sometimes hard to watch, the effect is surprisingly cathartic and spiritual. This is brutal, stark tragedy; people suffer, and it couldn’t be more mesmerizing.
At Quality 16 and Showcase
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars