It would have been easy for "Eastern Promises" to get consumed with a neck-snapping grip by the violent world it embraces.
Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), a man who is slowly working his way up through the Russian organized crime family that calls London home, lives in a world where life is held in little esteem. The only thing that matters is profit margin and trying to kill your competitor before your competitor kills you.
What keeps the movie from being smothered by this evil world and becomes more than just another thugs-gone-wild effort is director David Cronenberg. Under his skilled hand, a film that could have been just an exercise in violent extremes finds a delicate celebration of balance.
A huge part of this balance is supplied by Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife on a mission to find out about a baby whose unidentified mother dies in childbirth. The clues to this new life take Anna into the world that is so consumed with death.
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The selection of Mortensen and Watts to star also brings great balance to the movie. Mortensen has transformed himself into a man who is little more than raw nerve, tattoos and determination. Watts plays her character with the same determination. She even has her own raw nerves when it comes to the matter of life and death.
Mortensen's work is hypnotic. It is hard to look away both because of the brutality he brings and the enigma he creates. In a moment where the character is the most exposed, a knife fight in a steam room, so much about what makes up this man is revealed. At the same time, he keeps so much hidden.
The film is loaded with superb supporting performances, including Armin Mueller-Stahl's turn as local godfather Semyon. It is the most convincing crime family boss since the heyday of "The Godfather."
Cronenberg allows his actors to transform into frighteningly real characters. The story structure is perfect, allowing just enough to be revealed to keep the viewer hooked but never so much as to take away the ever present tension.
"Eastern Promises" is brutal. It is emotionally wrenching. It is a stark look at a world that should be avoided at all costs. And yet Cronenberg lures us into that world so deftly that viewers are drenched in the foul stench of evil before they know it.
It is the kind of film that lingers in the subconscious long after the final credits have rolled. That is to the credit of superb direction, applause-worthy performances and that delicate balance created between good and evil, light and dark, life and death.