Tuesday, October 02, 2007
At two points in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, the Russian desk of Scotland Yard puts in an appearance. The first of these functions to provide context, one detective explaining to another, and thus to the viewers, the role of tattoos within what we call the Russian mafia. The second time, however, it so transforms one of the film’s main characters that we feel as if the air is being taken out of this dark drama. Which seems particularly odd, given just how much this film wants to be devastating to its audience. And doubly so insofar as it also undercuts the themes of good within evil that lie at the heart of this otherwise excellent film.
My friend Michael Rosenthal, who warned me that I would find a punch being pulled, also reminds me that Cronenberg has said publicly that both Eastern Promises and its immediate predecessor, A History of Violence, are “works for hire,” even tho it is clear also that Cronenberg is perfectly capable these days of dictating the terms of just such employment. Still, it is that second scene and its tacit redemption of one of the film’s most brutal characters that I think Cronenberg is pointing to when he says this. As if to say that, without this moment, an audience might find this film irredeemable, all darkness with no sense of relief. Yet it is the promise of just that pit, some last rung of Hell, that Cronenberg wants us to glimpse. He very nearly succeeds.
A lot of this film depends on the skills of its two leading actors, Viggo Mortensen in his finest role ever, well beyond even his work in A History of Violence, and Naomi Watts, who continues to be one of the two or three finest actresses of our time. Mortensen had become typecast as a villain in films – see, for example, his role oppose Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow in A Perfect Murder – before Lord of the Rings (he was a last-minute addition to the cast once Peter Jackson determined that his first choice lacked the necessary gravitas, or perhaps just undercurrent of menace, that Mortensen brings to every role) transformed him overnight into a leading man. It is Cronenberg’s genius to recognize that it is these two sides of Mortensen’s potential as an actor that positions him perfectly to be a Cronenberg leading man. Mortensen is hardly the first actor to join these two aspects of his personality – Ed Harris, Willem DeFoe, Christopher Walken, Russell Crowe, Robert De Niro, Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, all the way back to Broderick Crawford, Robert Mitchum & Humphrey Bogart, Hollywood seems to love the leading man who offers the threat of violence barely controlled behind a smile. With Eastern Promises, Mortensen goes right up there alongside De Niro & Bogie at the head of this list. It is precisely the absence of this subterranean rage that keeps, say, a John Wayne off it altogether.
Eastern Promises is, in some ways, David Cronenberg’s Pillow Book, a film in which both violence & intimacy are literally inscribed on the body. This he accomplishes without Watts once removing an article of clothing, sharing indeed just one brief kiss. This film isn’t about heterosexual eros nearly so much as it is the homosocial dimension of male organizations. The mob boss’ son demands that Mortensen’s character have sex in front of him so that he can tell his father that the new lieutenant is “not a queer.” It is self-consciously the least sexy fucking you will ever see, the hooker’s dispirited face devastated by the act.
The role of the body as something inscribed is effectively carried through in two other scenes as well, one of them an interview through which Mortensen becomes the Russian equivalent of a made guy – his resume is his body. The other is the already famous attack in the steam baths, the single most violent fight sequence I have ever seen on film, one that had literally everyone in the theater I was in gasping, screaming & groaning out loud, the guys at least as loudly as the gals. It’s worth noting that this is a very violent gangster movie in general in which guns appear not to exist – not only are straight razors and box cutters bloodier instruments, they require you to be up close and personal with your opponent. The steam bath sequence is, ultimately, the true sex scene in this film, not just because Mortensen is entirely naked throughout – his assailants are dressed in black – but because of the intimacy of the assault. It becomes evident immediately that deep cuts in Mortensen’s abdomen & back are themselves a form of writing upon the body, just like the tattoos. Penetration here is defined as a box cutter in the eye socket, ideally suited to twist and twist and twist.
A day later, I keep wondering about the film this could have been. Cronenberg has always been a director with an open channel to the dark side, unflinching in his willingness to follow his logic to its extreme – viz Dead Ringers or The Fly. So it feels odd here to see him step back at such a key moment. If, in fact, he wanted it to make a statement about his character, that opportunity was abandoned precisely because of the way in which it occurs. But what would it mean for a perfectly evil being to do something nice? Isn’t this, in fact, the same gesture that Russell Crowe makes in 3:10 to Yuma when he submits into boarding the prison car of the train? Tho Crowe seems hardly more lethal than Hopalong Cassady compared to the boys of Siberia & Chechnya in Cronenberg’s vision. Crowe’s body count may be much higher, but killing on the road to Yuma is clean & casual by comparison (indeed, that film’s one moment tuned to the squeamish impulses of an audience is medical in nature).
And why, at this moment, are filmmakers making this statement? It’s as though we’ve arrived at a recognition that we ourselves are the monsters – ask any Iraqi – but still want to believe that a thread of redemption remains.