Friday, August 31, 2012

Director Spotlight #9.19: David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises


Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. August’s director is body horror auteur David Cronenberg.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 73 (B+)

Eastern Promises can’t help but feel a little weak coming after A History of Violence. It’s David Cronenberg’s second crime-thriller in a row, and both feature Cronenberg’s typically measured, probing, chilly touch. But where A History of Violence benefited from being pulpier than most Cronenberg films, Eastern Promises sometimes feels a little too staid and stately. But that’s not to say that it’s a bad film by any means. Quite the contrary, it’s another Cronenberg film that improves on repeat viewings, and a more than worthy addition to his oeuvre.

Anna (Naomi Watts) is a midwife in London of Russian descent. When a 14-year-old Russian immigrant dies during childbirth and leaves behind only her diary, Anna connects the diary to Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a ruthless Russian mobster who poses as a kindly restaurant owner, and his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel). Anna fears what Semyon and Kirill might do if they get their hands on the diary, but she finds an unlikely ally in Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), a driver and heavy who works for Semyon and Kirill.

Eastern Promises mostly moves along as a supremely engaging, often brutal thriller. Cronenberg shows the ins-and-outs of the Russian mob with strong assurance, and his ability to make the audience uncomfortable with their bodies remains unchallenged: fingers are chopped, throats are slit, young prostitutes are forced into joyless sex, and none of the gory details are spared. It’s well-acted by an empathetic Watts, a Machiavellian Stahl, an unstable and often pathetic Cassel, and, in a nice bit of casting, Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski as Watts’ uncle.

 Cronenberg directs with an greater cold, observant distance and intensity than he did on A History of Violence, but it doesn’t always serve him well. The film moves along fluidly, but it rarely gets under the skin as well as his best works.  Part of the problem comes from Steven Knight’s script, which does a good job of describing the workings of the Russian mob- particularly with a bit about how tattoos tell a Russian criminal’s life story that fits Cronenberg’s body-obsessions rather well- but which seems confused as to who the protagonist is (Anna or Nikolai) and for the most part doesn’t seem to add up to much more than a well-observed thriller.

 The film’s key strength, then, is Mortensen’s phenomenal Oscar-nominated performance as Nikolai. In a film where everyone else seems to be losing their footing, Nikolai is in perfect control and cool as a cucumber. Mortensen never overdoes the Russian accent or tries to hard to act scary. Rather, his cool intensity recalls Robert De Niro in The Godfather II- the son of a bitch is so deliberate in his movements and his carefully picked words that he’s naturally frightening. He’s introduced as a meticulous cleanup man with little fear and complete assurance (I love the intimidating touch of Nikolai putting out a cigarette on his tongue). He’s a man of extraordinary patience- he puts up with Kirill’s badgering and abuse for a chance to get close to the boss. Yet he’s not completely heartless: he treats Anna with kindness and shows genuine concern for both a prostitute he’s forced to sleep with and for the baby Semyon has threatened to kill.

Cronenberg and Mortensen both received overwhelming praise for one scene in particular: the bathhouse fight. Easily one of Cronenberg’s finest set-pieces, the scene is set up slowly and deliberately as Nikolai is led in to be sacrificed in place of Kirill. As he’s ambushed by two thugs, he’s at his most vulnerable- pale and completely naked, unarmed and relying only on his wits and his fragile body. He’s cut several times and only barely overcomes the two men. It’s a brutally effective sequence that showcases both Cronenberg’s interest in the frailty of the body and the latent level of homoeroticism within hypermasculine organizations- as a sweaty, bloody, naked Nikolai kills the two men, he pins them, climbs on top of them, and penetrates them with knives. That it’s staged to look like he’s sexually overpowering them is no accident.

Yet this isn’t the only great scene of Eastern Promises. The twist in the film’s final minutes- that Nikolai is working undercover for the police- it barely registers upon the first watch, but its weight is felt upon repeat viewings. Nikolai is the inverse of Mortensen’s character from A History of Violence- a good and moral man posing as a monster. He has gone to hell and back, and his efforts have put himself and the easily manipulated Kirill at the top of the London sect of the Russian mob. But can he keep track of the goodness within himself, or will he lose that identity to the brutal acts he has to perform as a member of the organized crime syndicate? Unlike most Cronenberg films, Eastern Promises practically begs for a sequel. There’s plenty of potential in the relationship between Nikolai and Kirill (who may or may not be a closeted homosexual) and in the story of a man being lost in moral and existential murk. Cronenberg, Mortensen, and Cassel were all ready to start shooting this year when Focus Features pulled the plug. For once, the lack of a sequel feels like a disappointment rather than a virtue.

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