The charms of a reptile: Viggo Mortenson in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises

Steven Knight’s screenplay for Dirty Pretty Things (2002) skillfully explores the skuzzy drug and prostitute-ridden underside of London where an illegal immigrant from Nigeria finds a human heart in a toilet.

In this year’s Eastern Promises, Knight returns to the same British terrain but this time focuses on the infiltration of the Russian mafia known as “Vory v zakone” or Thieves in law. When a fourteen year old prostitute, Tatiana, gets rushed to the hospital after hemorrhaging on the floor of a corner drug store, she has a baby who lives, but she dies during the C-section, and midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) finds on the girl’s corpse a diary written in Russian. Inside the diary, Anna notices a card advertising a Trans-Siberian restaurant, so she goes to visit the place, and runs into the charming Russian owner Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Semyon shows her around the swank establishment, ladling out some borscht out of a big tureen for her to sip. He seems as kindly and lovable as a Russian bear until one notices that he takes a strong interest in the diary and volunteers to translate it for her. Out on the London streets, Anna keeps running into Nikolai (Viggo Mortenson), a tall funereal looking dude in black leather. Nikolai has his hair greased back and he speaks with a very strong guttural Russian accent. He’s the “driver,” so he gives her a ride home when her motorcycle stops working.

Basically, Eastern Promises tells a gangster story in the Godfather vein, but compared to the multigenerational sweep of Coppola’s masterpiece, this film’s goals are more modest as it explores a subculture of Siberian prison tattoos and the exploitation of rural Russian girls lured to the life of the big city. David Cronenberg directed it, so in his trademark way he goes a little further into the violence than one would expect. Ever since his break-out film Videodrome (1983), Cronenberg has specialized in an intellectualized treatment of the ghastly things one can do to the human body. In Crash, he explored our fascination with car accidents, and Dead Ringers (1988) concerned two druggy gynecologist twins who start to operate on women using strange new instruments.

With his more recent A History of Violence which also stars Mortenson, and Eastern Promises, Cronenberg has turned to more commercial storylines, but one can see his interests creep in anyway. For instance, Nikolai turns out to be not just a driver but also a “cleaner” trained in “professionally processing” or erasing traces of a corpse’s identity before the gangsters drop the body in the Thames. A fellow has his throat slit Sweeney Todd-style in a barber shop, so Nikolai shows up later with his hot-headed colleague Kirill (Vincent Cassel), and calmly hauls the body out of a freezer. He asks for a blow dryer so he can warm up the man’s clothes to find his wallet, and then he clips off his fingers and cuts out his teeth. Cronenberg takes the gruesomeness a little far, but the scene still feels justified to show the ruthlessness of the world that Anna has entered.

Meanwhile, Anna just wants to find a home for Tatiana’s baby, but as her Russian uncle translates the diary and uncovers a lurid story of child-rape and forced heroin addiction, she inadvertently implicates Semyon’s organization, so naturally he wants the diary back. When she gets morally indignant with Nikolai, he says “Anger is very dangerous. You belong in there with nice people.” His tenderness with her coupled with his dangerous potential makes their encounters sinisterly romantic.

Ultimately, Eastern Promises succeeds due to this blend of viciousness and European sophistication of the wealthy rain-soaked London streets. When the rural Russian girls believe the eastern promises of wealth in exile, the mafia turns them into slaves, but the evil is both plausible and attractive as embodied by Semyon and Nikolai. Even though Naomi Watts’ character never develops much beyond the threatened maiden, Mortenson mesmerizes with his sleepy eyes and reptilian smile.