Directed with considerable formal intelligence and brooding power by David Cronenberg, Eastern Promises is very much a companion to A History of Violence. Both are crime thrillers that allow Viggo Mortensen to play a morally ambiguous and severely divided, if not schizoid, action-hero savior; both are commissioned works that permit hired-gun Cronenberg to make a genre film that is actually something else. Graphic but never gratuitous in its violence, Eastern Promises unfolds mainly in a demimonde of Russian émigré thugs and whore-masters. Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife in a London hospital, delivers a baby as the mother, a 14-year-old prostitute, dies in childbirth. Anna filches the girl's diary, hoping to discover who she is, and asks her irascibly inebriated uncle to translate. "Do you always rob the bodies of the dead?" he asks in a question that will hang over the rest of the movie. A business card found in the diary leads Anna to the London branch of the Gulag-spawned criminal fraternity vory v zakone (thieves in law). "This isn't our world—we are ordinary people," her anxious mother (Sinéad Cusack) warns her. As usual in Cronenberg, the ordinary is severely contested terrain, especially when it comes to the crime family's chauffeur, Nikolai (Mortensen), a superbly complicated character—dark, diffident, cynical, hyperalert, and tough enough to humorously stub out a cigarette on his tongue. Is our Nikolai an angel or the devil? And suppose that amounts to the same thing?
Kiss or kill? Mortensen and Watts.
Opens at Meridian, Fri., Sept. 14. Rated R. 96 minutes.