(It's almost impossible to talk about this film intelligently or at any length without mentioning at least some essential plot-points. While I've tried to keep it spoiler free, it does touch upon at least one major plot element but you've probably already heard about it if you've heard anything at all about the film. Anyway, just thought I'd warn you.)
Transformation of the human body and mind has always been the grand theme of the David Cronenberg oeuvre. In films like Videodrome or The Fly and in most of his early genre films (the so-called "venereal" horror films), Cronenberg used the shocking metaphors that the genre offered him to explore his own ideas about the relationship of the body and the mind, a dichotomy that Cronenberg ultimately rejects. However, in his more mature films like Dead Ringers, Spider and A History of Violence, Cronenberg put aside the effective though ultimately clumsy metaphors of the horror genre and began to shift his focus from mutation to psychology. His sensibilities and obsessions have remained the same, though: the creation or alteration of human identity. With Eastern Promises, his latest foray into the human mind, Cronenberg continues to obsess over the question of identity and creates another minor masterpiece of philosophy and violence, two elements that seem to fit together oddly and beautifully in his films.
When a young Russian prostitute dies while giving birth in a London hospital, Anna (Naomi Watts) attempts to use the girl's diary to identify her in order to deliver the newborn child to the girl's relatives. She discovers that the girl worked for the vory v zakone, a particularly notorious Russian crime organization, and that both the diary and the baby pose a threat to the organization's boss Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Meanwhile, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen, delivering another nearly perfect performance) is rising through the vory ranks and earning the right to full inclusion in the crime syndicate. The intersection of Anna and Nikolai forces certain confrontations and transformations that will change and threaten everyone involved.
In any film, perception is identity; that is, a character is who he is perceived to be. As in A History of Violence, perception and identity in Eastern Promises is revealed and transformed both through the suffering and inflicting of violence. This tension of vulnerability and violence forms the film's essential matrix of identity and the its centerpiece - the scene you've heard about if you've heard anything about the film - is a savage and perhaps perfect image of that tension: in the sweaty and steaming isolation of a bathhouse, Nikolai is savagely attacked by rival mobsters and must fight for his life using the most brutal and immediate means possible - all while being completely naked. It is perhaps one of the most audacious and exhilarating scenes in movie history for a long while, as both Cronenberg and Mortensen lay it all on the line. But the scene is far from exploitive or shocking for shock's sake; it is a near-perfect rendering of the Cronenberg sensibility and an absolute marvel to behold. Besides being its strongest moment, the scene is the film's pivot. The encounter forces Nikolai to reevaluate his position and, ultimately, forces him to transform, or perhaps simply to reveal to us, who he really is. This distinction of transformation and revelation is ultimately artificial, though, since even if Nikolai himself has known who he was, we the audience have not. Identity is perception, and changing how we perceive a character changes the character.
There are only a few living directors who really excite me: David Lynch, Werner Herzog, the Coen Brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson and, yes, David Cronenberg (that all of these directors have had, or will have, films out this year only means that this is a great year for film). These are the auteurs, the artists and philosophers pushing the medium as far as it will go. Cronenberg isn't for everyone. His methodical style and somewhat stilted dialogue often turns people away from his films. Questions of artifice don't generally bother me, however, since I see Cronenberg, and all these directors for that matter, as being involved in concerns so much greater than the realistic portrayal of human conversation. They are driven by idiosyncratic obsessions rather than box office returns. Eastern Promises is poetry and philosophy wrapped in a pulsing tissue of human violence. So while it might not suit the tastes of everyone, if you are looking for an intelligent thriller that is almost laughably unconcerned with meeting conventional expectations, than look no further than Eastern Promises.
Experto crede: very strongly recommended for Cronenberg fans and anyone looking for an intelligent thriller.