Having neither the interest nor stomach for creepy horror films and other mindtrips, I haven't seen much of director David Cronenberg's filmography. But then came A History of Violence, the very definition of a slow burn (and, at only 90 minutes, a Brevity winner in 2005). And now with his latest accomplishment, Eastern Promises, I may have to change my attitude.
This film is more ambitious in scope, and is only 100 minutes. Naomi Watts plays a London midwife wanting to know more about a young Russian who died giving birth. Armed only with the diary of the deceased, she sets out to find any remnants of the baby's birth family. Her curiosity leads her to the principals of Russian organized crime: the calm, controlled, and creepy restaurant owner (Armin Mueller-Stahl), his hothead son (Vincent Cassel), and their loyal driver (Viggo Mortensen).
This may be the first mob-oriented movie ever made that does not feature a single gun, but that doesn't mean it lacks its fair share of violence. The knifeplay is more graphic, actually. It's not as if there's blood in every scene, but when there is, the audience is not spared. The somewhat publicized bathhouse scene is no exception; Mortensen's character has to take down a pair of enemies while equipped with, well, nothing. He loses his towel early on. You could debate which was more gratuitous -- the violence or the nudity -- but it's an authentic battle that sticks with you.
I wondered why the story was being told from the point of view of the Naomi Watts character, but it eventually becomes apparent why Viggo Mortensen's motivations remain hidden. And really, we're better off not knowing too much about the underworld of the import/export business, where human trafficking is just part of commercial trade.
The movie ends with a headscratching coda that led some audience members to proclaim "That's it?" But I found it only mildly ambiguous; the final shot tells us with fair certainty that we remain separate from those who immerse themselves too deeply in that world, and we therefore will not share their equally deep regret.