Thirty-two years after emerging as one of the most visionary storytellers of his generation with the audacious horror classic Shivers, director David Cronenberg proves with Eastern Promises that he still retains the power to surprise and challenge movie lovers. While a disheartening number of his peers have sadly failed to deliver on the promises made in their groundbreaking early efforts, Cronenberg has instead actually improved with age. His ambitious early films forced moviegoers to reassess their definition of horror, and now, more than three decades later, his two most recent efforts are equally as bold in subverting the conventions of the dramatic thriller to create something truly unique: an absorbing and thematically complex hybrid of the drama, thriller, and action genres that is as much his own as the body horror subgenre with which he made his name. Even as recently as 1999, Cronenberg was still exploring the displeasures of the flesh with the challenging genre/mind-bender eXistenZ, but now, with the release of A History of Violence and Eastern Promises (two films that share much more in common than a similar cast list), it appears that the director has effectively ascended to a new level of mastery by expanding his appeal without sacrificing his integrity. Cronenberg's unmistakable mark is all over Eastern Promises: from the pregnant sense of dread that lingers throughout to the disturbing flashes of violence that will surprise even his most loyal followers to, yes, even the motorcycle.
As early as 1977's epidemic shocker Rabid (in which he coaxed an exceptionally natural performance out of adult film star Marilyn Chambers), Cronenberg displayed an exceptional proficiency in working with actors, and that skill is simply amplified with the incredible talent he is able to procure. Of course, giving Cronenberg total credit would be to slight the likes of such formidable players as seasoned veteran Armin Mueller-Stahl, the volatile Vincent Cassel, quietly intense Naomi Watts, and fearless lead Viggo Mortensen, so here, as with the majority of his most accomplished work, it's the work on both sides of the camera that creates something transcendentally powerful. Cronenberg's new male muse, Mortensen, turns in a fascinating performance as a character who is deeply menacing yet oddly benevolent, while Mueller-Stahl is absolutely riveting as the grandfatherly crime boss who knows that the smallest mistakes can lead to the gravest consequences. Likewise, Cassel's performance as Mueller-Stahl's son -- a potentially psychotic gangster who appears to have finally gotten himself into a jam even his powerful father can't help him out of -- eventually proves to be one of the most emotionally complex. His pivotal scene at a waterside body disposal site provides the film with one of its most powerful -- and excruciating -- moments.
The actors aren't Cronenberg's only allies in Eastern Promises; in terms of storytelling, Dirty Pretty Things screenwriter Steven Knight's masterfully structured script is exceptionally effective at keeping the viewer off guard and constantly guessing. His unsettling attention to detail, the depth of his characters, and the manner in which he continually challenges the viewer to consider the consequences of his characters' actions right up to the final frames create a perfect storm of engrossing tension. Even the voice-over -- that age-old storytelling device -- carries an affecting sense of gravity, as it conveys the tragic diary entries of a young girl forced into drug addiction and prostitution. While in other cases the voice-over serves no other purpose than to allow a lazy screenwriter to effortlessly move the plot along, here it gives the action an added dimension by highlighting just how easily the desperate can be taken advantage of by evil-minded men with unfathomable power. Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, a frequent collaborator of Cronenberg's since 1988's Dead Ringers, paints a London where incredible evil lurks behind ornate storefronts and jubilant birthday feasts, and Howard Shore's unobtrusive yet effective score once again rounds out the Suschitzky/Shore/Cronenberg triplicity to profound effect. Much like A History of Violence, Eastern Promises is a film that will likely prove to the uninitiated what longtime fans of Cronenberg have known all along -- that he is not simply one of the most talented filmmakers of his generation, but one of the most courageous voices in contemporary film as well.