Eastern Promises, director David Cronenberg's latest sparsely-crafted thriller, is as fearsomely real in its look at violence as mainstream film can stomach. Cronenberg's last film, A History of Violence, marked his entrance (after a lengthy career in cinema's shadows) into mainstream film, with an equally clean-cut examination of humanity's darkness.
With Promises, Cronenberg not only hones his distinctively clear style of direction but also his continuing collaboration with the unrelentingly intense Viggo Mortensen. The result of this artistic progression, both collaborative and fiercely independent, is an unnervingly unique film.
Working from a sparse script by Steven Knight, Cronenberg creates a portrait of London that is almost unrecognizable. Framing the normally regal city as dreary and bleak, like a transplanted Eastern Bloc metropolis, Cronenberg juxtaposes the innocence of earnest immigrants in a soul-crushing institution. Knight's last film, Dirty Pretty Things, also dealt with immigrants (albeit illegal) but had a robust and slightly fanciful cast. Promises, however, shaped more by Cronenberg than anyone else, contains nothing but the minimum elements. A taut but superb cast, a deceptively simple story and a dose of gritty realism are all Cronenberg needs.
Cronenberg's filming is perennially hard to categorize: It has a spacious element to it, utilizing minute fractions of music and establishing an uncluttered feel to every frame. But Cronenberg, as before, continues to push the boundaries of what audiences can take. Cronenberg's philosophy towards violence as the human body's destruction is put on full bloody display in Promises. He never allows for voyeuristic escapism, though, as in the Saw films, which he has equated with snuff-porn more than actual cinema. Promises, as his past work has detailed, is more than anything an examination of the effects on individuals from giving and receiving moments of human sundering.
Mortensen, for his part, proves to be both adept at striking imposing dominance and veiled kindness in the same breath, and never is that more on display than in Promises. His character, Nikolai, is a recent Russian immigrant to London, where he quickly assimilates himself into the darkest corners of the Russian mob, the Vory V Zakone. Mortensen's rise to prominence is belied by Cronenberg's ability to film him as a towering golem as well as a calculating henchman, biding his time under the scheming wrath of the prince and king of the Zakone (played by Vincent Cassel and Armin Mueller-Stahl, respectively).
Mortensen proved in Violence that he could craft a frighteningly real dual personality with a brutal dignity and moral compass all his own. In Promises, which also stars Naomi Watts, that brutal dignity is amplified tenfold, as Nikolai is infused with a visceral dose of raw, unencumbered coldness. Mortensen's performance is relentless throughout; in each scene, Mortensen never flinches from the rigors of his role. Mortensen, with Cronenberg, has found his niche, acting as a mirror to Cronenberg's own ascetics of realism and violence.
Cronenberg is the rare director who has made the transition to mainstream cinema, adopting the best of popular production (clean and crisp visuals and sounds) while still maintaining his often uncanny ability to mix the common with the morally combative.
With Eastern Promises, Cronenberg has made a seemingly simple and taut thriller. His characters, however, brim with depth and nuance, seemingly without effort, and his film throbs with the contemplative force of an independent veteran.