David Cronenberg's films are usually so laden with metaphors--insects as the subconscious, car accidents as sex, bodily fluids as repressed emotion--that it can be easy to miss the craftsmanship of his storytelling while you're searching for all the deeper meanings. Even A History of Violence, ostensibly his straightest work, was as much an allegory on the ephemeral nature of identity as a double-life thriller.
Cronenberg's follow-up, Eastern Promises, is perhaps his first movie in which metaphor-diving is actually unnecessary. The myriad issues--family, justice, violence, and the mob--are all right there on the surface. And the way Cronenberg and screenwriter Steve Knight (Dirty Pretty Things) weave them into a rich web offers more than enough to chew on.
It helps that the acting is constantly compelling. Naomi Watts is stellar as Anna, a London midwife. Searching for the family of her deceased patient who left a baby behind, she approaches Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a restaurant owner and Russian mob boss. Semyon's interest in the dead mother leads Anna into escalating entanglements with him, his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel), and Kirill's friend Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), a driver for the family who quickly climbs the mob ranks. As the four characters' lives become dangerously intertwined, questions of emotional loyalty and brutal justice create a gripping atmosphere. Cronenberg's clear insistence that mob codes and family order are two sides of the same coin is starkly convincing, especially when embodied by the brilliantly chilling Mueller-Stahl.
Impeccably crafted and devoid of dead moments, Eastern Promises is not exactly pure Cronenberg. It lacks the kind of brain-jolting images that his films often burn into your brain--though the jarring scenes of graphic violence, especially one of a naked Mortensen goring his way through would-be assassins, certainly stick in memory--and the moments of existential crisis that he once owned a patent on. But if Cronenberg felt it necessary to avoid such flourishes in order to tell his story, he's certainly earned the right to have his judgment trusted. And in terms of sheer drama, Eastern Promises is unimpeachably strong.