This writeup is spoiler-free
Some movies begin slowly. Not director David Cronenberg's 2007 thriller Eastern Promises . Within a few moments we will see a mobster's throat cut and a young, pregnant prostitute die from internal bleeding. But Cronenberg's violence is never pointless; this is a strong look at character operating within and without the Russian Mafia. This is not a film for children of any age, but it is a true and brilliantly constructed story of brutality and hope packaged up within two memorable characters.
Brutality comes in many forms but represented formost by the enigmatic Nikolai Luzhin (portrayed by Viggo Mortensen). From the first moment we see him we realize that Nikolai is a very dangerous man. He is too slick, too clearly in control for us to be comfortable with him. His body is dotted with the tattoos worn as trophies inside the Russian prison system. He works as a driver for mobster Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his son Kirill (Vincent Cassal). Semyon is smart, controlled, and very-soft spoken, a grandfatherly man without a hint of scruple. Kirill is a thoughtless alcoholic who lives only for the moment and bullies in order to compensate for the weakness he feels. They are Vors, the top level inside the brutal Russian Mafia, powers in drugs, prostitution, white slavery and all other forms of vice.
Hope is represented by Anna, played by Naomi Watts. She is a midwife at a London hospital. A very young girl is brought in, bruised, tracked with needles and hemorraging, but also very pregnant. Watts delivers her baby, but the girl dies. She carries little: no money, no identification, only a diary carried inside her pocket. Anna takes it as the only cue to the newborn's surviving family, but as it's in Russian she can't read it. But her Uncle Stepan was born in Russia, and he might be able to translate it.
The diary is the central device to bring light and dark together. Anna needs it if she is to return the baby to her family. Nikolai becomes involved because the diary might contain evidence against Semyon and Kirill. What marks this film is the cleverness of its construction. Pay attention when you watch Eastern Promises. Everything matters and often in more than one way. The acting is superb, Mortensen inhabits the character of Nikolai. Not for a moment do you feel like he's acting. The same could be said of Watts, Cassals and Mueller-Stahl. The plot is smart and intelligent with two almost unguessable twists near the end.
But really the picture belongs to Mortensen. Nikolai at first appears a functionary, but right away Cronenberg and writer Steven Wright establish that Nikolai is both dangerous and a man to watch, decisive, smart and unpredictable. An Oscar would be well-deserved. His character stands at the center of this film, and with Watts' principled determination as a foil Cronenberg has given us a wonderfully constructed film, and a film that should withstand repeated viewings.
But it's not for everyone. Cronenberg has never shied away from violence, and while the violence clearly helps move the story it is brutal, explicit and shocking to the core. You may have heard something about the fight scene in the bathhouse, but you did not hear enough. Words do not exist for what happens. Eastern Promises is not a date movie, and leave the teenagers at home. But it is a fine film, and in many ways a companion piece to Cronenberg's earlier A History of Violence. The films parallel each other in several ways. Both films explored the affect of violence on people, but in AHOV Mortensen's Joey was a very good man who had once been a stone killer. Nikolai is very dangerous man who might have a warm spot inside. Provided you have a tolerance for shocking violence and are willing to pay attention, Eastern Promises will deliver everything promised and more.