Movies about gangsters: You expect a lot of noise. Shouting and screaming. Barrages of gunfire. Not here. Here we have somber reflection, the lurking gray peril of an urban underbelly, shifting shifty glances and unspoken threats. Eastern Promises is almost silent — even its title sounds like a shush. Terror swells inexorably and unavoidably, like the ebb and flow of the Thames River along the banks of which much of this story, with its tidal unease, takes place. And the slow creeping gloom of it lingers like a chill you can’t shake.
It’s with the quietest hospital emergency-room scene imaginable that the film opens. No doctors yell, no machines ping or bleep — it’s in that frosty calm that a 14-year-old girl dies just as her baby is born. Midwife Anna (Naomi Watts: The Painted Veil, King Kong) takes up the newborn’s cause, seeking out the family, if she can, of the unidentified teenager. A business card in the girl’s bag leads her to a Russian restaurant run by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl: Mission to Mars, The Thirteenth Floor), whom we can tell right off is a bad lot: he’s all about the stealthy threat of an old man who’s survived a long time in a dangerous situation. His son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel: Ocean’s Thirteen, Derailed), is a violent hothead held just barely in check by his driver and just-about friend, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen: Hidalgo, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King). They’re all members of the Russian mob that has its tendrils snaking deep into the sordid side of the city. And the more Anna learns about them and about their connection to the dead girl and the baby, the more she pushes back at their menace, and the more we fear for what she’s daring.
That fear has a strange and thrilling ebb and flow of its own, though, because we’re never quite sure what to make of Nikolai, who becomes Anna’s most regular contact with this particular gang. He delves into the most appalling tasks with relish, it seems, and yet declines to engage in some of the perqs of his work that, we suspect, a man like him — like what we believe him to be — would consider the best benefits of his position. Nikolai moves through his life with an odd brand of gentlemanliness that is as disconcerting as it is fascinating. Mortensen’s performance is as extraordinarily intense as always, but with even more layers of irony and mystery than he’s brought before; this second pairing with director David Cronenberg is even more powerfully, magnificently disturbing than their first joint effort, 2005’s A History of Violence. In one astonishing scene, two assailants armed with knifes attack Nikolai at a very, um, exposed moment, one that leaves Mortensen nearly as vulnerable as his character, and reveals better than ever how insanely dedicated Mortensen is to his craft. His performance and the gradations of uncertainty that he gives to Nikolai are part of what makes this one of the best movies ever about life in the mafia.
Mortensen and Cronenberg get a lot of help, it must be said, from the virtuoso script by Steven Knight (who also wrote the grim and glorious Dirty Pretty Things, also about an unseen criminal underside of London). The layering of ironies isn’t just Mortensen’s doing. In one exquisite moment, Semyon describes his adopted hometown thusly: “It never snows here, and it’s never hot. London, city of whores and queers.” That’s not just a beautifully ugly metaphor for neither-here-nor-thereness or a beautifully ugly description of a place by a man who believes himself more moral than those around him: it’s a beautifully ugly moment of unwitting self-satire by a man who condemns what he has helped create (he runs whorehouses, of course; it spoils nothing to reveal that the dead girl had run away from one of them).
Paradoxes and incongruities and biting — and quiet — mockery abound here. Easter Promises pulls no punches and drops little bombs of verbal and plot violence without warning, threatening menace of its own as it constantly forces you to reconsider everything it is and everything it’s saying. It rarely goes where you expect, and ensures that the road it takes to get you there is as bumpy and uncomfortable as it can be. And that is a wonderful thing.