As he forcefully barges his way into the world of modern filmmaking, the resident Canadian King of the body horror genre, David Cronenberg, has managed to find his niche in the form of the modern-day mafia film. Much like A History of Violence, his next project after that, Eastern Promises, stars the great Viggo Mortensen among other greats. Mortensen leads the charge alongside Vincent Cassel, Naomi Watts and Armin Mueller-Stahl, Eastern Promises is the finest non-horror Cronenberg can muster, and the results are simply superb.
Following a group of Russian mobsters as the death of a pregnant teenager looms ever closer to dismantling their family, Anna Ivanova Khitrova (Naomi Watts) soon finds herself in over her head when she translates the diary of the deceased and sets about to seek justice. Brilliantly performed by the leading cast members and dutifully directed with diligence from Cronenberg, Eastern Promises manages to engage with its audience quickly and brings them along on an amazing thrill ride. A story seeped in death and horrifying subjects soon becomes some of Cronenberg’s most enjoyable work thanks to Viggo Mortensen’s best performance yet.
Mortensen and Cassel work vigorously well together, the chemistry they have in every scene they both appear in knows no bounds. The two men give their finest performances to date as Nikolai Luzhin and Kirill respectively. Two mob henchmen looking to eventually take over Kirill’s family business, the two must balance mob politics with their rise to the top as they ice anyone that opposes them and deal with the fallout of an unexpected and sudden death. Cassel is on form here as an aggravated, typically hard headed Russian mobster; his clothing captures a nice iconography that manages to wrap around his incredible performance.
The rest of the cast fare just as well, Watts’ technically leading role gives the audience someone to latch onto; a character that does no wrong intentionally but finds herself wrapped up in a more dramatic tale of backstabbing brutality. Given the innocence of Watts’ performance as Khitrova, it’s nice to see that she regains some sense of moral and humanity by the end of Cronenberg’s sickeningly brilliant display of gut-wrenching turmoil. Mortensen and Cassel play anti-heroes verging on the path of full villainy, their performances balanced just right to be likeable enough to play along with their stance in the world and even understand the tougher decisions they have to make along the way.
With regard to Cronenberg’s direction, this is most certainly the most prolific piece he has given us. Catering to his style and trying out new pieces of camerawork, he feels experimental yet instantly recognisable, a brilliant blend that sees him prevail in an otherwise difficult atmosphere. He captures gritty scenes resoundingly well, far better than his opening efforts in A History of Violence. Pairing a superbly tense script with career best performances from everyone involved, Eastern Promises fairs well as being one of the best offerings Cronenberg has from a collectively incredible filmography.