Eastern Promises

| September 15, 2007

For the true fans of David Cronenberg, Canada’s premiere art house provocateur and one of our greatest living filmmakers, 2005’s A History of Violence was a bit of a mixed blessing. To be sure, it was an artistic triumph, a tough, heady, complicated act of genre deconstruction. Yet, for those of us who had loyally followed the career of Cronenberg since his exploding-heads-and-mutant-fetus days, the film was also something of a red flag. Here, after 30 years of challenging passion projects–the operatic horror of The Fly, the slow-burn madness of Dead Ringers, the eerie eroticism of Crash–was a completely accessible, commercially viable American action thriller. No tumor guns or talking typewriters here, just family secrets, gangster showdowns, and a Hitchcockian identity crisis. How quaint, how old-fashioned, how shockingly normal! It certainly deserved its accolades, but what, a scarce few were asking, did A History of Violence mean for the ongoing history of Cronenberg? Had our boy gone Hollywood or was this just an enjoyable detour on the road to stranger and more compelling experiments?
With Eastern Promises, we have an answer of sorts, and it’s not exactly encouraging. If this efficient, work-for-hire follow-up doesn’t prove that the one-time Master of Venereal Horror has mainstream appeal on his mind, it certainly reflects a further shift from personal, idiosyncratic efforts to more streamlined genre diversions. The good news, of course, is that Cronenberg really couldn’t sell out if he tried–M. Butterfly, the filmmaker’s completely bonkers attempt at a “prestige picture,” proved that handily. The bad news, then, is that Eastern Promises is still the most conventional film he’s ever made, a mob-thriller-cum-murder-mystery that lacks even the subversive edge of A History of Violence. Genre used to be a means to an end for Cronenberg, yet this may be the first time in which he isn’t using a basic narrative framework to explore bigger ideas, but, rather, finding small ways to shoehorn his own intellectual/artistic concerns into a B-movie formula. And make no mistake, this is a B movie–it just happens to be a fairly elegant one, spruced up by its A-list trappings and the steady, confident hand of a slumming master at the helm.
As scripted by Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things), the plot is standard potboiler fare: when a 14-year-old Russian refugee dies in her delivery room, London midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) sets out to deliver the surviving newborn to her nearest kin. With the young girl’s un-translated diary as her only guide, Anna inadvertently stumbles into the mystery of her patient’s demise, all roads leading straight to an aging Russian mafia don (a coolly menacing Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his hotheaded, insecure son (a terrific Vincent Cassell). Viggo Mortensen is the family driver, reserved but ruthlessly ambitious, his motives a mystery onto themselves. All of this is pure mob-movie convention, with an archetypal father-son conflict weaving its way through the usual murders and double-crossings and power jostling. To his credit, Cronenberg resists romanticizing organized crime in the way of his American contemporaries: this is one of those rare gangland thrillers that lingers almost exclusively on the un-pleasantries (not the luxuries) of such a lifestyle. What the director can’t quite resist is indulging in some of his old tricks; the pulpy subject matter allows for splashes of crimson gore and flashes of hard sex, both Cronenberg specialties. And it’s in the film’s action centerpiece–a spectacularly violent, sexually charged fight scene, all blood and naked flesh–that the filmmaker really flexes his muscles and puts his eccentric mark on the material.
Eastern Promises could have used more such distinct, forcefully iconic moments. As is, it’s a strangely placid and impersonal affair–like A History of Violence with half the intensity and a quarter of the critical self-awareness. Cronenberg wisely borrows that film’s strongest link for reuse here: stepping comfortably into the lead, Mortensen creates another arresting portrait of repressed male aggression, transforming a cipher role with his quiet charisma and muted passion. It’s a career-defining performance from the Aussie actor, who invigorates every scene he’s in with the force of his presence. If only the same could be said for Watts. Saddled with an underwritten, underdeveloped role, she gets lost in a sea of testosterone, her perfunctory heroine a mere catalyst for the twist-punctuated events of the last act. A better film would have given weight to her journey–more substance and feeling–rather than reducing it to a dramatic distraction.
But for Cronenberg and Knight, Eastern Promises is all about the men, their conflicts and their desires. Curious, given that the film’s central mystery–not to mention it’s half-baked social agenda–hinges on the abuse, oppression and subsequent death of young girls. Yet if the script’s male-centric outlook is dishearteningly narrow, Cronenberg at least finds a few transgressive ways to stretch its limitations. The director puts the complicated tension between Mortensen and Cassell front and center, inflating Knight’s tossed-off queer subtext into a bona fide, unspoken love story. When the two actors are on screen together, then and only then does Eastern Promises fully come to life, transcending its pulp-nonsense premise and gaining the sort of dense psychological dimension that a film like Dead Ringers has in spades. It’s enough to make one long for the days when you didn’t have to scrounge for hints of the abnormal in a Cronenberg movie. It was just there, poking out of every corner of every frame, the otherworldly glow of uncompromised artistry. Those were better days.

About the Author:

Jon Bastian Jon is a playwright and screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles, where he has been currently appearing in Flash Theater LA when not working for Cesar Millan to keep his dogs rolling in kibble.
Filed in: Video and DVD

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