At the time of its release, Eastern Promises seemed like a simple enough follow-up to David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence. Star Viggo Mortensen was back in the fold. The return to the world of crime fiction implied another shrewd, stylized excursion into genre, another opportunity for the filmmaker to sharpen the edges of an otherwise well worn paradigm. But the film remains at once one of the finest gangster pictures of the new millennium and one of the more unsettling entries in Cronenberg’s CV.

On the surface, the film is a lean and surprisingly efficient little crime tale, concerning the baby of a 14-year-old girl forced into prostitution by the Russian mafia. Anna (Naomi Watts), the midwife who watches the girl die giving birth, wants to find her family, armed only with a diary she left behind. But the mystery brings Anna into the orbit of Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a powerful mobster pretending to offer her help in translating the diary, as well as his closeted son Kirril (Vincent Cassel) and Kirril’s bodyguard and cleaner Nikolai (Mortensen).

Steven Knight’s script is among the most evocative and nimble he’s ever penned. In the hands of a random journeyman, or perhaps even Knight himself, the resulting exploration of crime family dynamics would make for a sturdy little thriller in the tradition of threadbare British gangster pictures. But Cronenberg luxuriates in the pulp pleasures of the genre while scouring its text for his own thematic aims.

The narrative trappings are intact, sure, but it’s not the twisting third act reveal that sticks with the viewer long past an initial viewing of Eastern Promises. It’s the way Cronenberg interrogates the gendered hierarchy of life within this subculture and the haunting way he bifurcates the depiction of bodies and their branching purposes.

Women are presented both as hollow vessels for the pleasure of their captors as well as passive incubators for future life, but the deceased girl’s diary voiceover – a description of her time in America as its own sort of afterlife – positions these trafficked souls as zombies, reanimated for no earthly purpose beyond the consumption of others. But in that undead corollary, there’s a kinship with the men who perpetuate this cycle, many, as Nikolai professes during a ceremony where he becomes a made man, have died long ago, going through their days feeling nothing as they ravage their surroundings.

But the men remake their outer husks to imply new beings in the armor of the old. The ritualized tattoos proffer proof of fealty, of resilience, and most of all, of affirmed masculinity. The cruel cycle at the heart of the baby’s mystery, we come to find, is rooted directly in the necessity for men like Kirril to prove their value as men, to maintain self-destructive facades that themselves only lead to more carnage.

Cronenberg finds his usual mirth in the grotesque depictions of violence throughout Eastern Promises, from the unfettered imagery of blades slicing flesh to lingering on a baby at birth before it can enter into this cycle of degradation. But it’s no surprise that the film’s most memorable sequence, the bathhouse knight fight between a naked Nikolai and his would be assassins, lingers with the viewer the longest.

It’s a virtuosic distillation of why only Cronenberg could give this script the life it needed to properly resonate. The tactile thrills of the altercation function both as unsettling body horror and a darkly comic extrapolation of the subdued homoerotic tenor of Nikolai and Kirril’s complex relationship.

The sequence cuts to the very core of what makes Eastern Promises so haunting, in interrogating the toxic masculinity at the heart of organized crime while making it the blunt, vulnerable centerpiece of its suspenseful high mark.

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