Heroes of the Zeroes: Eastern Promises
Heroes of the Zeroes is Nick Rogers’ daily, alphabetical look back at the 365 best films of 2000-2009.
David Cronenberg has tamed his fetishistic fascination with flesh while still being taken by what it means for life to gurgle out through gaping neck wounds. Though as violent as ever, he’s concerned with philosophical and psychological notions of carrying on, or shedding, one’s blood — what death leaves behind in life.
Steve Knight’s script for 2007’s “Eastern Promises” let simmer a dangerous melting pot, in which Russian teens cast off culture for the dangerous lure of a better life in London and criminals perverted ethnic traditions and called it mob loyalty.
Cronenberg then boiled it over with one of the most wincingly vulnerable fights ever — a toe-curling bathhouse brawl with a last gasp elevating the scene to the director’s upper echelon of vintage viscera.
Viggo Mortensen plays Nikolai, an up-and-comer in the vory v zakone — a Russian mafia in London, to which midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) discovers a deadly tie when a teen dies giving birth in her hospital.
Caught up in displacement and duplicity, Mortensen muddies Nikolai’s emotions even as his sympathies grow clearer. And Armin Mueller-Stahl dictates incremental, implied menace as a ghoulish godfather outwardly acting like a gregarious grandfather.
Consider “Promises” Cronenberg’s spin on “The Departed,” in which the motivations of lawmen and the lawless were similarly tested within an ethnic mafia’s violent ranks. But where that film morphed into an overwrought bloodbath, “Promises” maintained a vicious focus on mob malevolence and personal peril in pursuit of a criminal throne.