"Eastern Promises" will take your breath away, churn your stomach, and then leave you with memories of unforgettable characters as well as perplexing thoughts about good and evil. David Cronenberg's movie about Russian and Chechen mobsters clashing in London is more than violent - it is brutal, savage, shocking. But do not expect just an action film, exploiting blood and gore. After you shake off its terrific immediate impact (there is no way to think while watching it), you realize that "Eastern Promises" is also a kind of morality tale, complex and important.
Only after you hold your breath, cover your eyes, and get through the movie do you realize how "Eastern Promises" manages to contradict Friedrich Nietzsche effectively. The German philosopher's "Beyond Good and Evil" denied the possibility of a universal morality. Cronenberg's film says that ethics - without expectation of rewards, in this life or a possible other one - can prevail even in the depths of great evil. The "History of Violence" director continues his subtle, subtext theme of upholding Anne Frank's belief that "in spite of everything people are really good at heart," and he does so without a smidgen of sentimentality.
There is no goodness in evidence as Viggo Mortensen's scary Russian mobster does every bidding of Armin Mueller-Stahl's chilling godfather figure, ruling ruthlessly over a family, which includes his son, a monster out of control, played brilliantly by Vincent Cassel (son of Jean-Pierre Cassel).
During a pre-release press tour, Cronenberg spoke of his wish to present "provocative, juicy stories... with complexity... showing that all monsters are sentimental and have some kind of relationship to a moral compass." That is all true, but what makes "Eastern Promises" so appealing is that there is no pop psychology (or worse, pop philosophy) in or about it. The film hits you over the head with its magnificently written story (Steven Knight, of "Dirty Pretty Things"), not with a message.
The title, on one level, refers to promises made to young women in Russia, luring them to the West, where the Mob enslaves them as prostitutes. It is one of these drugged and brutalized women whose death opens the film, and brings an English nurse (Naomi Watts) into the story.
As a multitude of promises, threats and tragedies unfolds, you get the maximum out of "Eastern Promises" with minimum advance knowledge of its story. Initially, that is. When you return to see it again, it won't matter that you'll know how it ends, you will want to re-experience what is certain to become a classic film. ("Eastern Promises" was shown at the Toronto Festival last week, opened in San Francisco today, goes nationwide on Sept. 21.)