David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises is as effective and well-crafted a thriller as you’ll ever see. It’s economically told – there are no superfluous scenes here, every single one only adds tension and dimension to the story. The performance by Viggo Mortensen as a Russian hitman is amazing, and the supporting performances by Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel and Armin Mueller-Stahl are excellent.
“Sometimes birth and death go together,” Anna (Watts) informs Nikolai (Mortensen) early in the film. This concept is at the heart of the story, which begins with a 14-year-old Russian girl giving birth and dying on Christmas Eve. Anna is the mid-wife who delivered the baby and has the dead girl’s diary translated in an effort to track down her family so that the baby won’t have to go into foster care. She first asks her uncle to do the translating for her and then, in what proves to be the worst mistake she could make, she takes a copy of the diary to a Russian named Semyon (Mueller-Stahl), who at first appears to be just a restaurateur but is in actuality a mobster and the father of the baby. Nikolai, a new recruit to his organization brought in by Semyon’s son Kirill (Cassel) is sent to take care of the situation, but he has a conflicting agenda of his own. Birth and death come together most obviously in scenes between Anna, a giver of life, and Nikolai, a dealer in death, but it’s a trope that runs throughout the film.
Concepts of “family” drive the film – family as a biological, family in the organized crime sense, and also family in the sense of a community of immigrants in a foreign country. All these different understandings of family connect birth and death in ways both natural and unnatural. There are a number of vicious deaths in this film beginning with a man named Soyka, whom Kirill has paid to have killed for spreading rumours that he’s gay. “Soyka had brothers,” Semyon warns when he finds out and, indeed, the brothers are soon in London, looking to take out everyone who played a part in Soyka’s death. To save Kirill, Semyon arranges to have Nikolai set up which leads to a memorable and bloody knife fight in a bathhouse.
The fight scene is one of many instances where the film displays its fascination with the male body. Prior to this scene there’s a ceremony where Nikolai is given his stars – tattoos that mark his affiliation to Semyon’s organization. He has many other tattoos, each other which tells part of the story of his life. The other mobsters in the film have similar collections of tattoos. The fixation on the body feeds into a fixation on concepts of masculinity within the Russian community. Kirill has someone killed for saying that he’s gay, and he orders Nikolai to have sex with a prostitute in front of him to prove that he’s not gay. Throughout the film there is a consistent concern with Kirill’s sexuality, and whether or not he actually is gay, he is impotent with women and attempts to mask it through overt and aggressive displays of heterosexuality when he’s around other men. Semyon and Nikolai are "real" men as defined by the standards of their community, but Kirill has something to prove both as a man and a member of the crime syndicate. He's born into the crime family, but as a criminal he's also rather impotent and overcompensates for it by ordering Nikolai around.
Vincent Cassel’s performance as Kirill is excellently layered, and Armin Mueller-Stahl is a chillingly effective villain. Naomi Watts is outstanding as always, adding dimensions to a character whose place in the story ultimately doesn’t give her much to do. As for Viggo Mortensen, not enough can be said about how great he is here as he slips completely into this tricky role. Accents can be difficult to pull off for actors who are famous enough that the audience knows the accent is adopted, but here you don’t even think about it as Mortensen opts for a very subtle and subdued accent, aided in no small part by the way he carries himself. He sells this character so completely that you never see Viggo, just Nikolai. It’s a quiet, intense performance that perfectly complements the tone of the film.