How like David Cronenberg — the master of body horror as a path to the soul — to begin his mesmerizing power-punch of a thriller with a hemorrhage. The bloody fetus that we watch a fourteen-year-old Russian girl’s uterus struggle to expel is a child of rape. But in Cronenberg, be it the exploding heads of Scanners or the imploding ids of The Fly, brutality and beauty are inextricably linked. The baby becomes a promise and a threat in the eyes of the film’s central characters. Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), a midwife at a London hospital, tries to unite the baby with its Russian family from clues she finds in the dead mother’s diary. Her path leads to Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen), a driver and butcher for a Russian crime ring, led by Semyon (a magisterially scary Armin Mueller-Stahl), the owner of a chic trans-Siberian restaurant in London. Semyon, exuding grandfatherly charm to mask his sex trafficking for the Vory V Zakone syndicate, is a monster even to his psycho son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel excels). For Anna and Nikolai, Semyon will unlock secrets neither wants to face.
Brilliant film. Brilliant director. But you’re probably thinking it’s a linear plot for Cronenberg, who confounded audiences in Naked Lunch, Crash and eXistenZ. No worries. As in 2005’s incendiary A History of Violence, Cronenberg subverts formula at every turn. Unlike Hollywood products that, in the words of David Lynch, “pop and evaporate,” Cronenberg’s films pop and resonate. For more than three decades, this innovator from Canada has been quietly breaking new ground. If you still don’t see The Brood, The Dead Zone, The Fly and Dead Ringers as landmarks, accept the fact that you are just not paying attention.
The potent script for Eastern Promises is by Steve Knight, whose Dirty Pretty Things shockingly detailed the London black market in human organs. Cronenberg is too much of a visionary to take a documentary approach to Eastern European criminals in the U.K. His appeal is to the unconscious. What motivates Anna (Watts is extraordinary) to risk her life for someone’s else’s baby? Her mother (Sinead Cusack) offers clues. And her racist, Russian-born uncle (a sly turn from Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski) tells her that fornicating with a black man caused her own baby to die inside her belly. Watts uncovers a woman fighting her way out of a tragic trap by digging into her Russian heritage.
If anything, Nikolai is in a tighter spot. This driver has been to hell and has the scars to prove it. Or, in Nikolai’s case, tattoos. In the Vory underworld, tattoos are your resume. Standing before a crime tribunal, Nikolai need not speak; his markings reveal the story of his life. Mortensen uses the accent, the posture, the eerie stillness to devastating effect. The bathhouse fight between Nikolai and two knife-wielding thugs is a balls-out showstopper. But the blood-freezer comes when Kirill tests Nikolai’s manhood by forcing him to fuck a young girl while he watches. Nikolai takes the girl from behind so he can’t see her face. But we can see his. And in that moment, when Nikolai’s squint loses its hard focus, Mortensen reveals a haunted man. There is immense skill in his performance. It’s a Mortensen tour de force.
In Eastern Promises, shot to envelop by the great Peter Suschitzky, Cronenberg brings us face to face with the horror of self. The film’s bristling invention and biting with can’t stave off the dread. Sure, it’s hard to take. Consolation isn’t Cronenberg’s business. But art as a response to the terrors of modern life should be yours.