In David Cronenberg, Mortensen has found an equally sympathetic director with the good sense to place the actor’s uncanny talent for silent ambiguity within a moodier, if no less grisly, context. The two first collaborated on 2005’s A History of Violence, in which Mortensen played Tom Stall, a flyover-country diner owner whose past life as a Philadelphia mob underling is revealed in the wake of defending his customers from road-tripping serial killers. Cronenberg’s depiction of Rockwellian small-town life felt forced at times, but his trademark visceral violence was matched by genuine philosophical concern; the film worked as a thriller and family drama, but also as an inquiry into the moral gray areas of violence, repression, and lies.
Actor and director reunite in Eastern Promises, on DVD as of December 26, and aside from one much-ballyhooed fight sequence that has to be seen to believed, the results are lackluster, displaying none of the ethical insight that made Violence so penetrating. The main problem is the script, which attempts to weave a number of stories and social issues together but which contains only one truly round character. Mortensen’s Nikolai is the driver for the son of a powerful Russian crime lord (Armin Mueller-Stahl), but his more notable duties include babysitting the drunken heir (Vincent Cassel) and playing “undertaker” to the mob’s victims. The film’s main narrative momentum comes from the gradual discovery that, underneath his priapic leering and corpse-disposal abilities, Nikolai may very well have a soul after all.
As has become the current Hollywood vogue, the male protagonist of Eastern Promises is compelled to do right because of a baby. In the film’s opening scene, a young Russian woman dies while giving birth and the attending midwife (Naomi Watts, in a tragically one-note role) seeks answers in the girl’s diary. Her detective work leads her to Trans-Siberia, the restaurant owned by Nikolai’s boss Semyon and the front for his duties in the vory v zakone crime syndicate. The man is initially a picture of old-world hospitality and wisdom, but it turns out he deals in poison borscht, so to speak. Watts’s Anna, whose Russian heritage is as dramatically convenient as it is forced and unnecessary, needs to find out the address of the girl’s home lest the baby be given over to the British “system.”
Besides writing a cardboard role for the luminous and talented Watts, the screenwriter’s main goof is the recurring voiceover of the deceased’s diary entries. It is bad enough to use the pained metaphor “buried under the dirt of Mother Russia” near the film’s beginning; its reoccurrence at the end is lazy in addition. As for the baby subplot, Watts is asked to do little more than waft between moderate heroism and moderate anger. Her charming British mother and drunken Russian uncle are wooden ethnic stereotypes that add nothing to the drama or suspense other than to ratchet up the knowledge – through the uncle’s recollections of the KGB era – that the vory v zakone are indeed some very bad dudes.
The problem with Eastern Promises is Cronenberg’s insistence on following a democratic narrative when his interest (and ours) is understandably focused on Nikolai. Mortensen’s character is all hushed tones and dark suits; he exudes menace in a way that makes our throats tighten in anticipation of violence whenever he’s onscreen. And when he finally does get a chance to make good on that latent killer’s instinct, the aforementioned fight scene that ensues is so expertly choreographed and intimate that it renders the rest of the film even more sterile in comparison. Nikolai is also the only character whose motives remain beyond the audience’s grasp, and as such he is the only character whose actions invite us to care about him. Even the final revelation about his allegiances comes off as trite, literalizing the man’s internal balance between duty and morality that was more powerful when it remained organic.
None of this would be a problem if the writer and director just deemphasized the drama-deprived Anna plot and focused completely on Nikolai. Instead, the movie winds up being an awkward marriage of Cronenberg’s clinical, detached aesthetic and a talky melodrama. His focus on human physicality means that Eastern Promises contains no surfeit of slit throats and splattered blood, but they come off as gratuitous in the midst of all the supposedly “important” talk about the eastern European flesh trade and London’s seedy underbelly.
It's also worth noting that the child at the movie’s center is a particularly manipulative plot device. Once more, as in Children of Men or Knocked Up, we are told that a newborn is capable of vaulting even the most wayward man to a sense of high responsibility. The child is an empty image in this film, however, and we’re left wondering if Nikolai is actually more terrible than the filmmakers want us to think. Because while the baby may gnaw at his moral code, he wasn’t compelled to do much when his bosses raped and infected underage women in the past. Are infants the only things worth protecting?