Cronenberg at his best or most popular?
By Elliott Feedore
Eastern Promises” is the story of a director at a crossroads. David Cronenberg’s last foray, “A History of Violence,” was a smash-bang, indie-crossover success that deserved its reputation — and, in my opinion, a Best Picture nod. The picture was a fair, provocative and insightful deconstruction of violence in the American imagination; it was a modest production, but it cut through all of the big-budgeted, comic-book behemoths like a hot razor. Alas, “Eastern Promises” begins with such a razor graphically slitting a man’s throat.
I squirmed not only at the grotesque intensity of the effect, but at the cheapness of the technique. The violence here is gory and “unpleasant,” but — when staged as cleverly as it is in the already-infamous nude fight scene in the bathhouse — it’s braggart, too. When a Chechen assassin miraculously comes back to life only to have his eyeball pierced moments later, one might think they’re watching a Tarantino cartoon. The brutality is exhibitionistic in the way that the sex in Cronenberg’s 1996 “Crash” was; it’s fun, but such snarkiness seems beneath the director of “A History of Violence.” Is it possible that he didn’t learn his own lesson?
The London-based story is framed by the death of a teenage Slavic hooker who leaves behind her diary and newborn — all of which are objects of fascination and sympathy for the blandly virtuous midwife, Anna (Naomi Watts), who delivers the child. Anna, who is half-Russian, is our key to the straight world outside; the diary — which is read in voice-over — is her key into the criminal underworld of expatriates from the former Soviet Union. She is, of course, constantly warned that her spunky attempts to ensure a safe home for the baby are ill-advised, as is her attraction to Viggo Mortensen’s driver/hit man Nikolai. (This relationship tastefully — and efficiently — never blows up into a sexual tryst.) But Anna is consistently mawkish in her cinematic humanism. As the movie progresses, her appearances on screen become increasingly unwelcome; the inner-workings of the Mafiosi are at the real heart of the picture. The twists in those sequences and our allegiances for the characters are so delicately tooled that I’d be a spoiler if I divulged the minutiae here.
“Eastern Promises” is far from a bad movie, and I would be doing it a disservice by not recommending it, but it reeks of the psychomachia of a director torn in the adolescent struggle of wanting to be independent and wanting to be liked. Cronenberg’s feel for this Russian mobster-dominated London is spot-on. His capacity for painting this picture is comparable to that of Martin Scorsese, whose ethnic sections of New York and Boston, et al., take on lives of their own. These foreign environs ring true, completely evocative of a place I have never known. And this London never loses the clean, cold-yellow florescent look that has long been Cronenberg’s trademark.
The characters, however, have only three-quarters verisimilitude. Cronenberg’s — and the screenwriter, Steven Knight’s (whose biggest prior credits are “Dirty Pretty Things” and last year’s “Amazing Grace”) — notion of characterization is taking preexisting movie-mobsters and inserting a layer to their personalities merely to deceive the audience. Except for Nikolai, all of the gangsters are “Godfather” holdovers. However, Vincent Cassel as the Sonny Corleone — and especially Armin Mueller-Stahl as the Don Vito — fill out their roles so skillfully that one hardly notices the resemblance the characters bear to their predecessors.
Mortensen plays his part with quiet grace and charm, but is damned by a literal cop-out flung at him by the screenplay. It’s not as deft or detailed a performance as Mueller-Stahl’s, but it’s a fine one, and better than the one that Watts variably manages for her annoying, ad hoc midwife. Anna (who’s probably thrown in there so that the audience has someone to “identify with”) epitomizes the movie’s need to play it safe for the mainstream audience, while the actress’s casting epitomizes the movie’s need to play it cool for the indie crowd. (For the sake of argument, let’s scratch “King Kong” from her screen credits.)
And so Cronenberg hangs in limbo. With the good buzz and business that this film has going for it, there’s no way that he’s out of a job. But the question is: which job will he take next? Will his next project be Cronenberg or will it be Hollywood?
Elliott Feedore is a junior cinema and photography major who is angry that his idea for a naked bathroom knife fight is now taken. Email him at efeedor1[at]ithaca.edu.