David Cronenberg returns to A History of Violence territory and Viggo Mortensen comes with him to bring Eastern Promises (2007) to ambiguous, shadowy life.
Nikolai (Mortensen), a chauffeur and foot soldier in a Russian crime family in London, wears his shadow of a smile like an impenetrable mask. One minute he’s indifferently hacking up and disposing of the murdered corpse of a rival gangster, the next he’s watching out for Anna (Naomi Watts), an innocent hospital midwife who ends up in possession of a diary that implicates the family boss, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). His smile remains the same throughout: noncommittal, detached, blank.
We want to believe that Nikolai is really a soulful gangster with a criminal code behind his ambiguous grin and dark glasses because he may be Anna’s only protection from Semyon and his rash, careless son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel). Nikolai’s ambiguous motivations create as much tension as her predicament and Mortensen and Cronenberg (following a sharp original screenplay by Steven Knight) refuse to tip their hand until we’re deep into the complications.
There’s no code of honor among these criminals, no matter what their identifying tattoos say, and the violence is swift and brutal, as Nikolai proves when he’s attacked in a bathhouse, defending himself against cold steel with reflex efficiency. Rarely has anyone looked so vulnerable and ferocious in (literally) naked combat.
Nikolai is impenetrable to the end, thanks to Mortensen’s restraint and Cronenberg’s ambiguity, which makes the steely gangster drama reverberate long after the credits roll.
Viggo Mortensen earned an Oscar nomination for his performance.