Reviewed by Tim Wong

LIKE A FINELY sheathed blade, Eastern Promises conceals a deadly weapon: not just the grisly body horror we’ve come to expect of any David Cronenberg film, but a screen stealth so loaded with malice and intent, there’s no escaping its quiet assault. Supplanting the hallucinatory Americana of A History of Violence with a shady London milieu, Cronenberg reveals a closeted, seldom intimated subculture in the Russian mafia – or vory v zakone in native tongue – through a masterfully administered course of events. Firstly, the throat slitting of a Chechen gangster; secondly, the death of a haemorrhaging 14-year-old, whose newborn baby is saved; thirdly, the cutting of its umbilical cord, juxtaposed against the severed fingers of a to-be-disposed of corpse; next, one of several hushed encounters between vory ‘cleaner’ Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) and Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife who seeks the baby’s biological father; later, a sex scene voyeured by the spectre of Vincent Cassel, whose greasy Russian mobster ushers the film’s latent homoeroticism into the open; and climatically, a much talked about knife fight of gruesome, inerasable proportions.

Beneath its gangland clothing, Eastern Promises bears all the markings of a film deceptive in convention, pressed and postured into a menacing, dread-inducing, patently sexualised thriller, and is particularly remarkable as an intercourse of violence, where knives, not guns, are the metaphors of choice. In the steamy male domain of an inner-city bathhouse, Nikolai is attacked by two knife-welding henchmen, who not only penetrate his naked body, but reconstitute his skin (and symbolically, his uniform of tattoos) through gaping wounds rarely seen on film. Shot in vicious close proximity, this fascination of the flesh is also testament to Cronenberg’s responsibility with violence, whose reality-based films never overdose or cheapen its shock value in the way Scorsese does, yet show it for what it really is. In tandem with A History of Violence, Mortensen – once again, terrific – reassumes the position of a man with a past, and it’s his hard-edged exterior and medusa-like stare that is so essential to the film’s pregnant mise-en-scene. Less crucial is Watts, who opens a door into the vory underground, but is otherwise a bystander in Cronenberg’s pungently masculine world, and a far cry from the pivotal roleplay of Maria Bello before her. Yet, if Eastern Promises fails to lacerate as deeply as A History of Violence – a more streamlined execution in genre, Promises trims, for instance, the piercing cartoon dialogue and irony-meets-terror inconsistencies of that masterpiece – what it lacks in political reverberation it substitutes with economy, precision, and lethal ambience: a clandestine suspense that does not announce itself, but sneaks up sharply from behind, like a knife to the throat.