Filmmaker David Cronenberg continues to be obsessed by the human body, and all the things people do to it, in the brilliantly staged “Eastern Promises.”

Few other directors can trace the contours of skin or highlight its wounds and abrasions, amplify the pain and, on occasion, the masochistic joy of violent injury with quite the appreciative precision of Cronenberg. After witnessing films like “Crash,” or the more recent “History of Violence,” it seems that the senses become more alert, the body more sensitive to brushes with the physical world: A bad scrape on the knee can begin to look artistic, a coldsore can feel positively erotic. These sensations have nothing to do with feeling good, indeed it’s unlikely you’ll feel good after a Cronenberg movie.

On the other hand you’re aware of a resounding physical impact that leaves metaphorical scars on the retina, pierces the brain, and lodges inside the blood vessels like some particularly discomforting but sensual experience.

Eastern Promises
Director David Cronenberg
Run Time 100 minutes
Language English, Russian
Opens Now showing (June 20, 2008)

“Eastern Promises” sounds faintly biblical, and aptly it’s set at Christmastime in London. Not that it’s a morality tale (it’s impossible to associate Cronenberg with preachiness), as the concepts of good and evil are rendered meaningless against the urgent realities of the body. Cronenberg wastes no time as he opens the story with a Russian gangland murder: A man sitting in a barber’s chair has his throat inexpertly slit (in the manner of a person carving a badly cooked roast beef for the first time in his life) with a blunt knife wielded by a mentally subnormal teenager chosen specifically for the job. At the end of the block, a heavily pregnant 14-year-old girl walks into a pharmacy, dislodges a huge amount of blood from under her nightgown onto the tiled floor, and dies in the hospital after birthing a baby.

At this point, the two central characters haven’t met: Anna (Naomi Watts), a nurse who’s on shift when the girl is carried in, decides to make it a personal mission to locate her family and hand the baby over, while Nikolai (an astounding Viggo Mortensen), who works as a bodyguard/chauffeur for Russian gangster Kirill (Vincent Cassel), is called in to dismember the corpse of the murdered man.

As Anna croons to the baby and places her in a crib, Nikolai chops off body parts with a cleaver, then messily detaches the fingers (to avoid fingerprint identification) with a nutcracker.

Half-Russian herself, but not very familiar with the language, Anna wanders into the garish “Trans Siberia” restaurant mentioned in the dead girl’s diary. There she asks the seemingly benign proprietor, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), to translate the contents, hoping for some lead into the girl’s background. For all his Father Christmas exterior however, Semyon turns out to be Kirill’s dad and a deadly mafia boss whose main source of income comes from drugs and trafficking underage girls from Russia.

Anna is terrified by what she discovers, but is inexorably fascinated by Semyon’s world and, besides, a vaguely amorous relationship has sprung up between her and Nikolai. The attraction isn’t merely sexual (throughout the movie they exchange just one kiss) — as their bond is forged by a mutual concern over the orphaned baby. Anna’s mother, Helen (Sinead Cusack), warns her daughter that she’s wading in dangerous waters in more ways than one: “We are ordinary people but they live in a completely different world!”

Indeed, Anna and her mother live a short bus ride away from Semyon and Nikolai’s turf, but as the vast difference between their daily experiences shows, they may as well be living on different planets.

Stripped of Cronenberg’s obsessions of the flesh, “Eastern Promises” isn’t very revelatory — it’s not a gangster film on par with say, “The Godfather” or “Goodfellas.” But the physical details lingered over with loving attention, places the film in a league of its own. Hands and fingers are portrayed like precious museum pieces, torsos depicted like Renaissance statues, tattoos on legs and forearms seem tinged with a mysterious, sinister beauty. Muscles pulsate with tension and effort, sweat rolls off bodies, faces are contorted with pain and despair or become masks of defiant reticence.

“Eastern Promises” is rife with violence and brutality, but in the end the emotions that culminate are strangely life-affirming and full of hope. It is perhaps, a Christmas story in the true sense of the term.

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