Every Friday, we’re recommending an older movie that’s available to stream or download and worth seeing again through the lens of our current moment. We’re calling the series “Revisiting Hours” — consider this Rolling Stone’s unofficial film club. This week: Keith Phipps on David Cronenberg’s pre-Putin evil-Russian crime-thriller Eastern Promises.
There are two Londons in David Cronenberg’s 2007 film Eastern Promises: the one on the surface and the one lurking below that same surface that threatens to devour it. Sometimes it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. The film opens in a barber shop on a busy street filled with locals making their way home in the rain. None of the passersby seem to notice when the shop closes and the shades get drawn. Nor does anyone suspect that the shop will soon become a site of throat-slitting butchery, the latest spot touched by the Russian mafia that’s spread throughout the city, ensuring its success of the business with violence.
Working for a script by future Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight, Cronenberg — an artist best known for surreal, long-live-the-new-flesh gorefests — turns this thriller into a kind of civic horror movie in which organized crime acts as an infection in a city that might not be strong enough to fight it off. And it’s quite the opportunistic disease, one allowed to thrive by the populace’s hunger for vice and the protection of guns, money and urban camouflage.
Sometimes that camouflage takes the form of a lovely restaurant. When Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), a London midwife of Russian extraction, first visits the Trans-Siberian, she’s charmed. The restaurant’s grandfatherly proprietor Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) greets her; he walks her through an inviting space laid out for a wedding feast, plays her a moving violin solo and feeds her the best borscht she’s ever tasted. He even offers to help Anna solve a mystery that’s troubled her ever since a 14-year-old mother died in childbirth, leaving behind a newborn, a diary and a Trans-Siberian business card. Yet in spite of the homey touches, she’s wary enough to keep her guard up.
When she meets Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen, in the second of his three Cronenberg collaborations) outside the restaurant, her suspicions only deepen. With his slicked-back hair, impenetrable shades and casually threatening demeanor, he looks every inch the part of a Russian gangster even if he claims to be only Russian gangster-adjacent. “Chauffeurs don’t get invited,” he tells her, explaining why he’s not attending the feast whose set-up she just witnessed. Later, after Anna has been drawn deeper into the criminal underworld looking for answers, Nikolai will claim limited knowledge of this particular seedy corner of the city’s diaspora: “I’m just the driver.”
He, of course, is not “just the driver.” Nikolai is also the right-hand man to Semyon’s only son, Kirill (Vincent Cassell). The heir apparent to his father’s enterprise seems ill-suited to inherit a paper route, much less a city-spanning organized crime network. He’s reckless, drunken and deeply closeted. (In one of the film’s creepiest scenes, he forces Nikolai to have sex with a prostitute while he watches — the look on Kirill’s face betrays a different sort of interest.) The future prince of the city is a monster even by the sex-trafficking, drug-pushing standards of the post-Soviet syndicate. But, as played by Cassell, he’s also a pitiable monster up to a point. He’ll never meet the awful, impossible standards of his father. Beneath the murderous rage beats the heart of a Large Adult Son who knows he’ll never measure up.
Kirill is also a man unable to hide his emotions — a stark contrast to Nikolai, whose tendency to say as little as needs saying in any given situation, and to an entire sub-subculture in which a man’s tattooed skin tells the story of his life. And here’s where Eastern Promises connects again to Cronenberg’s earlier work. The Canadian director began his career making unsettling movies in which minds reshape bodies and bodies reshape minds. His 1986 remake of The Fly features Jeff Goldblum pulling out his teeth and vomiting on his food to aid digestion — then gets really gross. It became both his biggest mainstream hit and arguably the apex of his body-horror explorations.
From there, the filmmaker started to find increasingly subtler variations on those themes: going psychological with Dead Ringers (1988), Crash (1996) and Spider (2002); turning hallucinatory and literary with Naked Lunch (1991); waxing on the intersection of tech and flesh with eXistenZ (1999). And then comes his somewhat unexpected, yet equally fertile into crime movies. Take the scene in his A History of Violence (2005), when, without giving too much away, Viggo Mortensen’s character realizes he can no longer contain the secret he’s been keeping the whole movie. Watch his face when that internal shift gets realized physically — he “turns” into a different man without a dab of make-up or a pixel of CGI. In Cronenberg’s films, inside always finds its way outside, one way or another.
Here it’s more outside than usual. The film doubles as a primer on the coded language of Russian criminal tattoos, a practice in which every shape and stroke has significance, commemorating accomplishments and serving as both calling cards and warnings. For the film, Mortensen wore 43 (temporary) tattoos, including a prominent cross on his chest to symbolize Christ as a “Prince of Thieves,” sayings such as “I’m a slave to fate but no lackey to the law,” and stars on his knees to symbolize his character would bow before no one. “The tattoos became the main metaphor,” Cronenberg told The New York Times in 2007, “because it’s the body in transformation done in a realistic way as opposed to a sci-fi or a fantasy way.”
That’s true of Nikolai, too, whose mid-film promotion involves getting some new tattoos added to a collection that dates back to his teen years — some acquired in prison but none, he assures his bosses, have been applied against his will. And his ink, fresh and old, is on full display Eastern Promises‘ most famous scene, in which the not-just-a-chauffeur fends off an attack by two knife-wielding Chechen toughs in a steam bath. It’s a brutal confrontation that goes on and on as Nikolai fights for his life against what ought to be overwhelming odds. That he’s fully nude gives the scene shock value, but it also cements the stakes. He’s fighting to save his skin in every sense, to protect his life against men who would cut the flesh that lays out his narrative.
Only… well, it’s best not to get into that if you haven’t seen the movie. This is a film of double crosses, including one played by the film itself. A late-arriving twist forces viewers to rethink everything that’s come before, and syncs up beautifully with Cronenberg’s career-long concern with the mysterious places where flesh meets psyche, revealing the film as a mirror image to A History of Violence for reasons beyond their shared star. Call it a companion piece — another contemplation of how we think of good and evil, heroism and villainy, virtue and vice, and they way those concepts can share space inside the same body.
Eastern Promises didn’t quite meet with the box office success of History (though Cronenberg, Mortensen and Cassell came this close to making a sequel set in Russia a few years later; rumors still surface that it may yet happen.) Maybe it was a head of its time. Like the Italian film Gomorrah, released the following year, it depicts a world in which organized crime touches every person and every place, from a fast food joint to the drug store in which Christina’s mother collapses. That collapse sets in motion a chain of events that will draw in first Anna, then her family — Motherland transplants who thought they’d escaped the old ways, only to find they’ve found them in this new land. Having gotten his start making unsettling movies about the corruption of the flesh, the director uses London to explore moral rot on a larger scale. Eastern Promises‘ depiction of a world filled with those who see laws only as impediments to be avoided in the name of profit — and those who get crushed by getting in their way — looks downright prophetic.
Then there’s the specifically Russian nature of the corruption, which gave the film an exotic tinge in 2007 but now seems queasily familiar. Semyon and his foot soldiers have left their native country behind because of pressure from the regime in power. But our new familiarity with the techniques of the Putin-era government make them look as if they operate from the same playbook, relentlessly attacking a system at its weakest points and scaling up with each success until it’s replaced the system itself. Sometimes your news is real. Sometimes it’s a false story planted to achieve a political end. Sometimes a restaurant is a restaurant, and sometimes it’s also the center of a child prostitute and drug ring. In the end, who can tell the difference?
Which leaves you circling back and asking the question: Are there really two Londons in Eastern Promises — one true and one under the sway of a ruthless underground? Or have they merged, like Seth Brundle and his housefly stowaway, into some nightmarish new form? The film’s final image provides no answers, only confirmation that everything’s become much more slippery and dangerous. We once went to Cronenberg’s movies for queasy, quasi-hallucinogenic escapism. We now find ourselves living in an increasingly Cronenbergian world, where what roils beneath even the most placid exteriors threatens to spill out and burn everything it touches.