Blood is spilled fairly early in David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises," a fact which should come as little surprise to anyone who's followed the director's film career.
From such explorations of the flesh as 1986's "The Fly" to 2005's crime thriller "A History of Violence," Cronenberg generally doesn't pull any punches with his depictions of death and gore.
What differentiates him, however, from the run-of-the-mil filmmaker is that Cronenberg knows how to do far more than just turn a few stomachs. His films have a way of cutting through to the place where violence touches the human psyche, to the how's and why's behind the way different depictions of human suffering, cruelty and death move us.
"Eastern Promises" is no exception. In the film's first scene, a man's throat is slashed. In the second, a young expectant mother bleeds onto a pharmacy floor as she enters labor, underlying the film's overreaching theme of violence as the vehicle of change.
The story centers around two individuals: Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), a Russian mafia enforcer and chauffeur living in London, and Anna (Naomi Watts), a British midwife. Covered with Russian prison tattoos and sporting a dead, tough-guy scowl most of the time, Nikolai's life is one of obedient brutality. Anna, on the other hand, deals day-in and day-out with the fresh - and sometimes fleeting - lives of newborns.
The two characters' lives become intertwined when Anna, herself of Russian heritage, looks into the past of a Russian mother who dies in child birth, learning through the girl's diary about her days in the Ukraine dreaming of a future in the Western Europe, as well as her final weeks as a heroine-addicted prostitute in a London brothel.
As Anna's investigation uncovers the involvement of one of the city's most powerful crime families in the girl's fate, she quickly finds herself face to face with Nikolai and the ruthless culture he represents.
Having spent months researching Eastern European mafia culture - even traveling through Russia with a translator to help capture the accent, Mortensen plays the role of Nikolai to perfection. Beyond the tapestry of prison tattoos, dark suits and even the actor's well-weathered facial features, there is something haunting in the character's eyes, a subdued calm that hints at a deadening of the soul. One gets the impression his brutal past has left Nikolai little more than a voyeur to the violence all around him - even the share of it he is directly responsible for.
His repressed humanity is stirred, however, when he becomes involved in his crime family's efforts to make not only the dead mother's diary disappear, but also the newborn child as well.
Superbly shot against the backdrop of London's back alleys and gray, rain-drenched streets, "Eastern Promises" presents the viewer with a thought-provoking cast of characters who have all been marked by the violence they've endured. Some have been irredeemably scarred, while others - not unlike the orphaned infant - may just be able to survive the trauma of rebirth.
"Eastern Promises" is rated R for strong brutal and bloody violence, some graphic sexuality, language and nudity. It has a running time of 100 minutes.