Filmed in burnished yellows that alternate between the sickly pallor of death and the glossily seductive underworld of organized crime, David Cronenberg‘s “Eastern Promises” is all about surfaces. Those of his characters, their clothes and skin, as well as the dimly lit restaurants and apartments they frequent and dwell in. Though Cronenberg and his director of photography, Peter Suschitzky, obviously have invested this narrative with a proper, coherent visual framework, the focus on the outer layer is all too appropriate for “Eastern Promises,” which manages to be a surprisingly superficial gangster picture, ploddingly directed with a minimum of passion or visual invention.
After the requisite gory Cronenberg opening, in which some sinister Russian gangsters dispatch an enemy by furiously slitting his throat with a straight razor, the narrative shifts to Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife living in London who feels a moral responsibility towards the orphaned baby of a 14-year-old Russian prostitute who died in the hospital after massive hemorrhaging. In trying to uncover the truth about the deceased girl, Anna, spurred on by the diary she left behind, descends ever deeper into the vicious urban back alleys of the London-based Russian mafia. And, of course, as all women retrofitted into resolutely masculine narratives are forced to do, she finds herself both repelled and attracted to the most seemingly dangerous criminal of all: Nikolai (played by Cronenberg’s muse of late Viggo Mortensen), the narrow-eyed driver of the sinister kingpin-cum-restaurateur Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel).
Rarely has a filmmaker been less interested in his ostensible protagonist than Cronenberg is with Anna–an audience surrogate, she disappears for long passages, only to resurface to do inane things like confront possible maniacs on the sidewalk, screaming “She was 14! She was just a child!” Screenwriter Steven Knight, whose “Dirty Pretty Things” was a similarly plotted tale of an innocent trying to navigate through the nefarious dark corners of present-day London immigrants, gives Anna little back story or personal idiosyncrasies (besides the annoyingly “colorful,” stiltedly acted Russian relatives she lives with), leaving her with nothing to do but embody dull righteousness.
Unable to properly establish Watts’s moral interiority in order to balance out the film’s depiction of a bristling, violent underworld (what’s really at stake for this character?), Cronenberg is much more at home flaunting his usual: simmering sexual violence, and the limits and possibilities of the human organism. Mortensen is meticulous, as usual, coiled and conflicted, but Cassel is perhaps even more fun to watch: his Kirill is the film’s best creation, a sexual predator unable to reconcile his latent attraction for Nikolai with his bestial urges, taken out on whores (in one scene, he forces Nikolai to fuck a prostitute while he watches from the doorway). Cronenberg’s always been good at conveying homoeroticism within violent, masculine environments, but here it merely seems par for the course.
In fact, “Eastern Promises,” even when it snaps out of its narrative somnolence, seems almost mechanical in its deploying of its director’s greatest hits: when does a trope just become a mannerism? Of course Cronenberg won’t simply show a neck slit, but detail the difficulty of sawing through skin, neck, and tendon in grotesque close-up. Cronenberg’s film only truly comes to life in its most obvious big set piece, an already lauded knife fight staged in a Russian bathhouse, with Mortensen’s tattooed body naked and frighteningly vulnerable. Less whip-crack fast (like so many hand-to-hand combat scenes) than keyed in to the body’s natural time delays and restrictive heaviness, this bravura moment gets at a world of hurt that the film’s otherwise hokey litany of dirty gangsters and stolen babies can only hint at.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]