This italicized portion usually contains some modern pontificating on the earlier writing presented in this weekly feature. In this instance, though, I have no annotations. This review was written for my former online home.
David Cronenberg’s last film was called A History of Violence, which would be an apt title for his latest since that is as good of a description as any for what is tattooed on the skin of the Russian gangsters at the center of the story. The inked markings are intended to be a map of their villainous accomplishments and stature within the organizational pecking order, and, through the lens of Cronenberg, it makes for an immediately imposing image, a sharp signal of the brutality that can emerge at any moment.
Of course, The History of Violence could be comfortably assigned to any number of Cronenberg films or maybe his career as a whole, so Eastern Promises is just fine as this new film’s title.
“Just fine” is also a decent summary for the film as a whole. A medical emergency brings a midwife played by Naomi Watts into contact with the Russian Mafia in London. Secrets emerge, family strife is laid bare, an infant’s future lies in the balance, and it’s largely sedate, predictable and–most shocking given the director–a little pedestrian. It’s not bad, by any means, but nor does it get under your skin. It improves in its last third with a few genuinely surprising twists that go a long way towards making the earlier portions more intellectually satisfying even if it doesn’t inspire a sudden emotional investment.
One thing that’s fully rewarding is to see a fresh entry in the collaboration between Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen. Just as Violence represented unprecedented accomplishment in Mortensen’s lead performance, so too is Promises another new pinnacle. He plays a criminal foot soldier who is both a stolid observer and a careful contributor. Mortensen takes this seemingly passive role and infuses it with a flinty inner life. Even before Promises sparks to life in its final third, Mortenson’s creativity is a cue that the film holds more potential than is apparent.