"I seem to be drawn to kind of enclosed, hermetically sealed subcultures," David Cronenberg explains on one of the bonus features accompanying the DVD release of "Eastern Promises."
In "Eastern Promises," Cronenberg uses the ever-reliable Anna as his wide-eyed point-of-entry into the rapidly growing Russian population of London. When a teenage girl dies in the delivery room, leaving only a orphaned baby and an unreadable diary, Anna is drawn into the world of human trafficking and the Vor v Zakone, or literally "thieves of the code." She soon becomes tied in with unhinged mobster Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and enigmatic driver and cleaner Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen, a million miles from Aragorn).
"Eastern Promises" is a thematic counterpart to Cronenberg's most recent film, "A History of Violence," exploring both the rituals and codes of organized crime, but also the literal and physical marks left by violence, both justified and seemingly random.
Like so many of Cronenberg's films, there's a richness of thematic detail that's only enhanced by additional viewings. Revisiting the movie on DVD, I was even more taken by the Cronenberg's depiction of this alternate London and these alternate mobsters, so foreign from the city and crime syndicates viewers are used to seeing. The film's first 80 minutes, the film leading up to the amply discussed and praised bathhouse brawl -- as raw and manifoldly naked as any big screen scene this year -- is so satisfying that, frankly, the predictable and yet unnecessarily convoluted twists and turns in the script's final act ultimately unravel the film even more than I'd initially felt. Even Cronenberg can't be bothered to show any passion for the supposedly shocking reveals in Steven Knight's script and that lack of conviction spoils what could have been a masterpiece.
One thing that can't be spoiled is Mortensen's performance, a piece of complete immersion that I'm convinced will be remembered as 2007's defining male performance, even if the Academy voters may not be bothered to notice. Since I don't speak Russian and my ear for the accent isn't native, I can only praise Mortensen for the consistency of his character's voice and for the actor's ability to draw textual nuance from lines outside of his native tongue. From the way his shoulders are set to the way he lights and smokes his cigarette, everything about Mortensen's Nikolai is convincing. Any clip from the bath house scene would make the best darned Oscar clip ever.
Since the droll, erudite Cronenberg is one of my favorite DVD audio tour guides, it's disappointing that "Eastern Promises" arrives on DVD without commentary from either the director or Knight, who mined similar territory in the underrated "Dirty Pretty Things." My only guess is that the film was rushed to DVD in hopes of exposing potential award voters to Mortensen's performance.
The DVD comes with only two featurettes, both brief.
At 10 minutes, "Secrets and Stories" is a solid making-of documentary that covers a lot of material quickly, including filling in a few details on the Vor v Zakone not discussed in the movie. Mortensen also talks about his preparation, which included a full-immersion sojourn in the Ural community he decided his character would have been from.
As much as Cronenberg loves his hermetically sealed subcultures, he may love issues of body modification even more, so it isn't surprising to learn that the film's emphasis on tattooing became a bigger part of Knight's script after he came on board. In the seven-minute "Marked For Life," Cronenberg, Mortensen and several crew members explain the meanings of the individual tattoos, which have all been fact checked for Vor v Zakone accuracy, or at least as much accuracy as any tattoos that can be removed with hot water.