Tuesday, November 06, 2007

He is no driver, he is the undertaker.

Eastern Promises is the first film by David Cronenberg shot entirely outside of Canada, but this dislocation is not as prominent as one might expect. Cronenberg's films are primarily composed of interiors, both literally (the spaces his characters inhabit and, sometimes, their insides) and emotionally. So while a thriller set against the backdrop of London's criminal underworld is a narrative departure for the director (a stunning early gore effect aside), it also represents a logical step in Cronenberg's thematic evolution, which has moved from physical to existential horrors. Though there are no telepods on display, Eastern Promises is another chapter in Cronenberg's ongoing study of what it is to be human.

As with his previous film, A History of Violence, the "mob" is an abstract, a pulpy representation of the ways that family at once defines and assimilates one's self. When a fourteen-year-old girl dies during childbirth, leaving only a diary and a business card behind as identification, midwife Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) sets out to find the baby's family. Her search leads her to Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a grandfatherly restauranteur who is also the head of a powerful crime family specializing in sex trafficking. Implicated in the diary is Semyon's son Kiril (Vincent Cassel), a hothead accompanied by Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), his driver, a cool, calculating figure who, early on, dismembers a corpse as casually as if he were cleaning a turkey. I referred to Eastern Promises as a sort-of thriller because the the plot does not to be Cronenberg's main point of interest. Instead, it's the characters that drive the story, particuarly Nikolai; as part of an initiation ceremony, the driver renounces his parents and origins in favor of the criminal history tattooed on his body. Here, criminality becomes a way to transform, or even destroy, one's identity, and screenwriter Steven Knight suggests, as he did in his previous Dirty Pretty Things, that this is a mirror of the global economy's push towards homogenization. But Cronenberg isn't a political filmmaker, at least not in such black-and-white terms. In Nikolai he finds a true hollow man - a character that is representative of nothing except his actions, a smirking blank slate brought to life by Mortensen's pitch-perfect performance (also a mirror image of Tom Stall).

Cronenberg's identification with Nikolai, which borders on the fetishization previously reserved for eXistenZ's Allegra Geller, threatens at points to drown out his other characters. The leads all do strong work, and Jerzy Skolimowski and Josef Atlin are memorable in supporting roles, but their characters are somewhat shortchanged as Nikolai takes the film's center stage in the second half (though Watts gets to ride one of Cronenberg's beloved Urals). Also, while Cronenberg's trademark brevity is usually refreshing, here the 100-minute running time feels rushed. I hesitate to reduce things to such simplistic terms, but an extra reel would have given the film enough breathing room to give the final twists more impact. Cronenberg's detached approach results in a film of surfaces, at some points chillingly ambiguous, at others vague and impenetrable.

Still, these are minor complaints in a film filled with surfaces this rich. Nikolai's world has a crimson, classical elegance that at first seems a seductive departure from the film's desolate vision of London. But Cronenberg avoids Godfather-esque romanticism, quietly linking this old world's decay with that of its adopted city. The dead girl's ever-present narration presents a familiar vision of "the city" as a place to reinvent oneself; in Nikolai's tattooed body, Cronenberg presents the dark flip side of this fantasy. And the film reaches a brilliant apex in the already-famous bathouse fight scene, which is unforgettable not just for the matter-of-fact nudity but as a visceral explication of the film's homoerotic undertones - read the assailants' knives as phallic objects, and each blow and thrust carries a greater psychosexual weight. If this seems like a heady approach to a mob movie, it's because Cronenberg's films demand to be read on many levels. Even when they're not completely successful, they stick to the ribs, and for more than just the spectacle of Viggo Mortensen's furious balls.


Anonymous said...

Just what, exactly, are Cronenberg's beloved Urals?

Andrew Bemis said...

A Ural is a Russian motorcycle. Cronenberg's a huge bike enthusiast - the design of the telepods in The Fly was inspired by the cylinder of his Ducati.

Milena said...

I enjoy your reviews a lot! I don’t comment often simply because I didn’t watch most of the new movies - haven’t got time for it yet. Eastern Promises is still waiting on my shelf.

Video Box said...

Thanks for the review, I'll surely watch this upon reading your insights... I really enjoy your blog!