While David Cronenberg has been synonymous with “body horror” for most of his career, it has been close to two decades since he made a feature (1999’s eXistenZ) that could be classified as such. (It’s also been that long since he directed one based on his own script.) In that time, his subjects have ranged from thrillers both psychological (Spider) and criminal (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises) to the historical drama (A Dangerous Method) and contemporary satire (Cosmopolis, Maps to the Stars). Of those, the one that veers closest to body horror is 2007’s Eastern Promises, released 10 years ago this month. In it, Viggo Mortensen (Cronenberg’s leading man of choice at the time) plays Nikolai, an up-and-comer who has modified his body by getting an array of tattoos to infiltrate the Russian mob in London.
Cannily, like a horror filmmaker revealing his monster piece by piece, Cronenberg unveils Nikolai’s body art one body part at a time. Even the most attentive viewer may not register the initial glimpses of the ring-like tattoos on his fingers and the small one on his wrist, but Cronenberg lingers on the one on the back of his right hand long enough that it would be impossible to miss. And the same goes for the ones on his forearms when he rolls up his sleeves to process a corpse that needs to be gotten rid of. (All part of the job when you’re a chauffeur for the mob.) Their meaning and purpose is helpfully explained by a Scotland Yard detective when the body washes up on the shore, having been unceremoniously dumped in the river. “In Russian prisons, your life story is written on your body in tattoos,” the detective says. “If you don’t have tattoos, you don’t exist.”
More of Nikolai’s life story is hinted at in a subsequent scene set in a brothel showing the tattoos on his thigh, chest (a cross), and abdomen, leaving the curious to wonder if there are any parts of his body that aren’t covered in them. The answer arrives about 35 minutes later, when Nikolai is being cross-examined by the heads of several Russian mob families before he is to receive the stars on his knees and over his heart that indicate he is a member of vory v zakone (literally, “thief in law”). Then and only then does Mortensen completely strip off his Armani suit to expose the ink all over his body — and, oh yes, that the once and future Aragorn is positively ripped.
This is confirmed in the scene that follows, which requires a little set-up because Eastern Promises tells two stories in parallel — one on the surface and the other running underneath it. The surface one involves a half-Russian midwife named Anna (played by Naomi Watts) who comes into contact with the underworld in the week between Christmas and New Year’s when a 14-year-old émigré named Tatiana dies while giving birth in her hospital and she makes it her business to find out where the girl is from so her baby doesn’t get swallowed up by the British foster-care system. (Screenwriter Steven Knight adds another layer of urgency by making Anna a would-be mother herself who recently lost her own baby.)
A business card for the Trans-Siberian restaurant brings Anna to the business front of London mob boss Semyan (Armin Mueller-Stahl), whose son Kirill (Vincent Casell) is being groomed to take over for him. The problem is Kirill is a born troublemaker who invites it to their doorstep by ordering a hit on a fellow vor for gossiping about his sexuality (a real handicap in such a homophobic subculture). This in turn brings a pair of Chechen contract killers to town and leaves Semyan with no alternative but to elevate Nikolai (who was, up to that point, being brought along more slowly) so he can take Kirill’s place. What’s ironic about this is Semyan doesn’t know at the time that Nikolai is working undercover for the government, although he has suspicions. (“For driver,” he says, “you are well-informed.”)
And so, to save Kirill’s skin, however unworthy it may be, Nikolai is primed to meet a violent end at a public bathhouse — in the sauna, no less. “Semyan recommends these places for business meetings,” says the underling who sets him up, “because you can see what tattoos a man has.” The only ones the Chechens are interested in, though, are the stars telling them they’ve found their mark. As naked and seemingly defenseless as Nikolai is, however, he’s more than capable of defending himself, eliminating his fully-clothed assailants in the space of three flesh-piercing, bone-crunching minutes. It’s the most primal action scene in Cronenberg’s filmography, illustrating that he could have been a mainstream action director had he chosen to go down that path when Hollywood beckoned in the mid-’80s. (Imagine what Cronenberg’s Top Gun would have been like.)
What makes the sequence especially unnerving is there’s no fantastical element — such as the telepathy in Scanners, the hallucinations in Videodrome and Naked Lunch, or the slow genetic mutation in The Fly — to place the audience at a remove from the violence. Instead, like Nikolai, they’re suddenly confronted by two brutes with sharp knives (which they’ve already put to use once) who have to get up close and personal to do their job. Like Tatiana’s rape at Semyan’s brothel (described in her diary, but tastefully not shown) that resulted in her pregnancy and death, the assault on Nikolai is similarly coded, although he’s able to turn the tables on his attackers, using their own weapons against them. And like Tatiana, Nikolai is wheeled into Anna’s hospital on a gurney, bloodied and bruised, but at least he can get up and walk out on his own power in time to rescue her daughter, who is delivered to Anna, the woman who helped deliver her. Considering how rare happy endings are in Cronenberg’s films, this practically counts as a Christmas miracle.
Craig J. Clark lives in Bloomington, Ind., has never been to a sauna like this one.