David Cronenberg | 1hr 40min
Even as David Cronenberg drifted away from explicit body horror in the mid-2000s and towards crime dramas, his camera never wavered from close-ups on bloody acts of carnal violence, least of all in the study of bodies and identities that is Eastern Promises. It only takes two minutes for him to launch into its first gruesome murder – an assassination in a London barbershop, dispatched by means of a sharp razor to the throat of a rival gang leader. Immediately after, we cut to a pharmacy where a young, pregnant woman enters, bleeding profusely. Though she is rushed to the hospital in time to give birth, she tragically dies in the process, leaving nothing behind but a few stray belongings and a diary, which midwife Anna takes home with her. Within those pages lies the key that connects these two deaths, exposing an underground world of secrets too shameful for even the Russian mafia to let out.
Eastern Promises marks the second of Cronenberg’s collaborations with Viggo Mortensen, and even in this well-rounded cast including the likes of Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, and Armin Mueller-Stahl, he still stands out as a quiet, menacing force with his thick Russian accent and slicked back hair. As a bodyguard and enforcer of the Russian mafia’s London arm, he is covered in tattoos that designate various ranks, crimes, and loyalties, yet he lacks the signature stars over his heart and on his knees that identify him as a high-level gangster. Within this shady, soulless world of treachery and bloodshed, lives are written out by physical markers on the skin of its members, binding them to specific groups while erasing those individual traits that don’t quite fit the mould.
“In Russian prisons your life story is written on your body in tattoos. You don’t have tattoos, you don’t exist.”
In this way, it is also a method of ownership and control, though one that is only skin-deep. Secrets abound within the Russian mafia, and to acknowledge their existence would be to destabilise its foundations. Kirill, son of mob boss Semyon, overcompensates in hiding his homosexuality, and his father similarly goes to great lengths to cover up his own rape of a 14-year-old sex worker. As for Nikolai, these tattoos are nothing less than a sign of the trust he has earned after years working in the mafia, concealing his true identity as an undercover police officer. As he moves up the ranks and finally receives the revered star tattoos above his heart, Mortensen lounges back and strips down to his underwear, exposing the ink that simultaneously paints out his life and his disguise. Cronenberg goes on to imbue the scene with a vulnerable sensuality, invading Nikolai’s personal space with both the close-up heavy camera and needle. Aside from the gruesome violence found elsewhere, this may be the closest Eastern Promises gets to Cronenberg’s characteristic body horror, intrusively altering and mutilating the natural organism that is Nikolai’s physical being.
Whether fingers are being clipped off dead bodies or a mother is dying in childbirth, the fragility of the human body is significant to Cronenberg’s depiction of mutilation in Eastern Promises, inspiring neither shock not exhilaration, but rather a deep, visceral terror at the constraints of our own fleshliness. All this builds to a crescendo at a Turkish bathhouse, apparently a good place for business meetings one mafia associate says, given you can see what tattoos a man has. Truthfully though, it is an even better place to carry out a hit, given the sheer vulnerability of one’s targets.
Within the yellow and blue brick walls of the establishment, Cronenberg fills the air with thick, humid steam, building a magnificent set piece that sends a stark-naked Nikolai fending off two knife-wielding assassins with his bare hands. Though he does not see them coming, he is quick to react to their first strike, and even at a severe disadvantage and with multiple wounds slashed across his exposed torso, he eventually turns the tide on his attackers. Being a man so strongly grounded in his identity, his body is both his greatest disguise and weapon, making him one of the few characters truly equipped to survive the dangerous criminal underground of London.
The danger present in Eastern Promises is all relative though, and on the other side of the cast Anna leads a personal investigation into the Russian teenager, Tatiana, who passed away on her operating table. Anna comes from a Russian immigrant family herself, and while her Uncle Stepan who worked in the KGB is capable of translating the diary she has claimed from her deceased patient, he expresses a reluctance to wade into the dangerous waters of her traumatic history.
“Bury her secrets with her bodies.”
Stepan’s mistaken plural that comes from his broken English isn’t missed by Anna who corrects him to the singular, but even here Cronenberg is pointing to the universality of this common idea that echoes through his characters – our bodies are tied to our secrets, and to separate them is to violate an unspoken code that keeps social order. Still, Anna can’t help her curiosity, and very quickly finds herself absorbed in Tatiana’s diary entries which weave through the film in voiceovers, expressing the hopeful idealism of a young immigrant moving to the United Kingdom, as well as the crushing depression of a woman forced into sex work as a means to survive. As she pores over Tatiana’s poignant reflections, Cronenberg subtly dollies his camera forward, absorbing us deeper into the tragic life that joins the two halves of this story.
When the missing pieces of the mystery do finally come together in the final act and all the relevant secrets surface, Cronenberg still resists providing complete resolution to his characters’ journeys, least of all Nikolai’s which has sent him to the top of the mob’s London organisation. Though his tattoos suggest a man who lives by the rigid code of the Russian mafia, detailing his past in symbols that lay out his past like a book, to assume that this is where his identity ends is a mistake. In Eastern Promises, people who let both their minds and bodies be subjugated by rigid cultures are ultimately broken by them, but for those like Nikolai who exert precise, independent control over their appearance, mind, and actions, such long-standing traditions may be easily destroyed in their hands.
Eastern Promises is currently available to rent or buy on YouTube.