Cranky’s Flickershow Reviews
By Neil Richter
A Promise Kept
Eastern Promises, director David Cronenberg’s new Russian gangster film, is unlike any crime drama you have ever seen. He has stated before in interviews that the crime genre as a whole bores him. Anyone who’s seen a couple of Cronenberg’s movies knows he has a peculiar set of obsessions that he returns to again and again: the fragility of the human body, the melding of flesh with machine, etc. As a result, his films are often queasily gory exercises that nonetheless display an uncanny visual skill. The mark of a pro lies behind each one.
Eastern Promises is no different, although this time Cronenberg works from a rich script by Steven Knight to create a world based as much on character as it is on brutality. Many have gone on and on about how violent this film is, but, as Cronenberg has also pointed out in interviews, there are only three real scenes of violence: two brief, one spectacularly graphic. The difference is, Cronenberg makes the killings look as horrible as they would in real life. His characters are not pawns in a video-game and this is not an action movie. In Cronenberg’s universe when somebody is cut, they bleed…profusely.
Apart from that one scene, which I will get to later on, Eastern Promises is actually a very quiet, low-key film. The characters rarely raise their voices, and threats are delivered with friendly calm. In this London-set drama, there aren’t even any guns. Assailants prefer knives, you see. Into this fray steps a quartet of major characters. First, there is Naomi Watts as Anna, a midwife who delivers the child of a dead girl, only to filch the young woman’s diary. Then there is Armin-Mueller Stahl as Semyon, a mobster who doubles as a restaurateur whom Anna contacts about said diary. Semyon is very interested in the contents, and tries through a variety of methods, some courtly, some threatening, to get ahold of it. Thirdly, we have Semyon’s volatile yet pathetic son Kirill, (Vincent Cassell in a great role that he probably won’t get nearly enough praise for) the wild card in all these proceedings. Finally there is Nikolai, the family chauffer. He is a tattooed rock of a man played by future academy award nominee Viggo Mortensen, who completely disappears here. As for the rest of the plotline, I will leave that up to you to find out. This is the kind of tightly woven narrative that unspools the second an important spoiler is leaked.
All plot aside, what strikes me most about this film is how body-centered it is. Cronenberg films his interiors with blood reds and dark earth-tones. Odd details are lingered over and fetishized: from motorcycles, to cars, to food, to tattoos…..especially the tattoos. In a number of scenes the camera simply gapes at Mortensen’s heavily decorated frame, once stopping for an extreme close-up of the tattooing process itself. This combines with the exceedingly grisly flashes of violence (as I said, all by blade or razor) resulting in a truly disturbing commentary on one of Cronenberg’s above-stated obsessions: the fragility of the body.
All of this comes to a climax in ‘that scene’, a savage fight to the death in a bathhouse. I don’t want to spoil anything, so stop now if you’re planning on seeing this film. Nevertheless, it bears discussion, since this is the one scene that the film will be remembered for. Cronenberg throws the rulebook out for movie fights. This is bloody, dirty, realistic, and alarmingly vulnerable filmmaking. In it, Viggo takes on two assailants while completely nude (on account of being in a steam bath). Where many directors and moviegoers would simply be unable to stifle their laughter at such an idea, Cronenberg spins it into a thoroughly terrifying scenario. After all, when someone has no clothes on, their wounds become troublingly visible. The cheers and laughter of violence-loving filmgoers will stick in their throats when confronted with such an unsettlingly honest spectacle. Yes, its ugly, but its also a brilliant piece of stand-alone filmmaking that tells it like it is when it comes to onscreen violence.
I will conclude with a word of explanation. I realize that I’ve focused on a few, fairly narrow segments of this film without properly examining the whole. That is because I believe it works better as both a commentary and subversion on the gangster film as a genre than as a narrative. Yes, the narrative is perfectly workable, with some terrific acting. However, the ending is distressingly anticlimactic. Its almost as if following that one ‘big’ scene, everyone decided to wind things down with the least amount of effort possible. Still, that fits even better in with the initial critique. The cold steel of gunmetal, the legions of beautiful girls, the stacks of cash, the raging shootouts, Cronenberg takes them all and either throws them out the window or turns them into something deeply unsettling. The film ends with a whisper rather than a bang. All of us in the theatre expected a certain ending, a violent final salvo, but Cronenberg refused to give it to us. I say, good for him.