Appellate Judge Dave Ryan thinks that this film could have used a few Mugwumps, or maybe some sex-crazed parasites, just for color.
"I'm just a driver."
After reaping the greatest critical acclaim of his career with 2005's A History of Violence, Canadian director David Cronenberg released a second straight-ahead, non-bizarre drama, the Russian mob-themed Eastern Promises. It's another extremely strong outing for Cronenberg (headlined once again by his Violence lead Viggo Mortensen), one that's even more mainstream and "normal" than Violence. But is it good that the King of Venereal Horror seems to have left both horror and actual/metaphoric genitalia behind? Or has a singularly unique vision been sacrificed on the altar of commercial respectability?
Facts of the Case
In modern-day London, a 14-year-old pregnant Russian girl enters a pharmacy, and collapses in a hemorrhagic heap after begging the druggist for help. She dies during childbirth, but delivers a healthy baby girl. A midwife from the hospital, Anna (Naomi Watts, King Kong), attempts to track down the newborn's surviving family using a diary found on the dead girl. A business card in the diary leads her to the Trans-Siberian, a restaurant in the eastern part of London run by a kindly old man named Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl, Shine). He offers to translate the diary for her…but he seems to be asking a few too many personal questions (where do you work, where do you live, etc.). On the way out, she runs into Semyon's drunken, violent son Kirill (Vincent Cassel, Elizabeth), and his "driver" Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen, A History of Violence).
Unknown to her, Anna's uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski, Mars Attacks!) overcomes his unwillingness to deal with "something taken from the dead," and begins to read/translate the diary himself. When Anna returns, he tells her what she has already begun to suspect—the girl, Tatiana, was a prostitute for the Russian mafia, the vor v zakone. Anna realizes that the diary is dangerous, because it exposes how the girl was raped and impregnated by one of the higher-ups in the mob. She brokers a deal to exchange the diary for the address of Tatiana's relatives in Russia…but does she already know too much?
David Cronenberg's work has been, for many years, somewhat of an acquired taste. Which is not surprising for someone who's been called the "king of venereal horror." Ever since his breakthrough, Videodrome, Cronenberg has been associated with weirdly psychological sci-fi/horror films with healthy doses of overtly sexual and grotesque horror imagery. Remember Jimmy Woods pulling the gun out of his chest-vagina? Or Jeff Goldblum…um…dissolving away into Brundlefly? Whether or not you appreciated his unique worldview, you knew when you were watching a Cronenberg feature, because his personal style was so distinct and unique.
But then, around the time of Cronenberg's "adaptation" of William Burrough's Naked Lunch in 1991, something changed. Naked Lunch was straightforward Cronenberg—ambiguously sexual, gross, sticky, wet, and terribly confusing. It was a commercial failure, inaccessible to the general moviegoing audience and criticized by Burroughs fans (although not by Burroughs himself) for being less an adaptation and more a fantasy version of Burroughs' life. His follow-up was, of all things, M. Butterfly, the film adaptation of the popular Broadway play of the same name. M. Butterfly told the story of a French diplomat who falls in love with a "female" opera singer in Peking. The singer is actually a very feminine-looking gay man, something the diplomat almost certainly knows yet represses. It was a decidedly un-Cronenberg sort of film, and he seemed to be a singularly inappropriate choice to direct it.
Or was he? M. Butterfly—which was a decent and well-made film, incidentally—is, in many ways, as psychological as Scanners or Videodrome, given its focus on an insular community (the Peking opera) and a main character whose true nature is never completely clear. Is he himself a latent homosexual? Is he really, really stupid? Does he just not care? It's never clear. It may not be "venereal horror," but the film in many ways is just as uncomfortable, thought-provoking, and claustrophobic as Cronenberg's earlier work.
Cronenberg followed M. Butterfly with 1996's Crash, which can be described in three words: violence as pornography. Crash could almost be viewed as pornography itself, since it is pervasively sexual, and the sex is merely for sex's sake; devoid of love or passion, in Cronenberg's hands, it's almost a physical manifestation of self-obsession. Crash is disturbingly sexual, almost like watching a rape. But again, it was thought-provoking and fascinating if you could get beyond its disturbing imagery. eXistenZ, in 1999, was a return to the sci-fi/horror genre for Cronenberg…but not an original return. eXistenZ is a thematic remake of Videodrome, replacing Videodrome's video/sex/violence Bermuda triangle with a more modern internet/sex/sanity structure.
But the return to Cronenberg's old stomping ground of sci-fi/horror turned out to be short-lived. His last three films—Spider, A History of Violence, and this film, Eastern Promises—have been straightforward "normal" dramas, each one more normal than the last. Only Spider had any element of oddity, with Ralph Fiennes' character mentally time-traveling to view his own past as a first-hand witness—hardly a shocking or disturbing twist. Has Cronenberg finally gone mainstream? Are the days of psychics exploding each others' heads and demon babies born of pure hatred over now? Well, I can't answer that. But one thing hasn't changed at all in Cronenberg's work: his films are still thought-provoking and disturbing (in a good way), and you'll think about them long after the final credit rolls past.
Despite the greater amount of critical praise heaped on its predecessor A History of Violence, Eastern Promises is a better film. Violence felt, at first, a lot like a Kubrick film. It was a slow burning film, building tension drop by drop as we sought to learn whether the mild-mannered family man Tom was actually a mobster in hiding, only to shift its tone radically and explode into Peckinpah-esque violence and confusion as it recklessly drove to its ambiguous conclusion. Whether you saw it as a homage to Peckinpah, or having elements of Kubrick (as I did), or being similar to some other film (the screenwriter, Josh Olsen, cited Unforgiven and Jacques Tournier as influences), one thing was true: it didn't feel like a Cronenberg film, except in small bits (e.g. the near-rape on the staircase).
Eastern Promises, on the other hand, is more balanced and focused, has a better and more straightforward plot, and—most importantly—it feels just a little more Cronenberg-y. There are many, many similarities between the films, although it doesn't rise to the level of "virtual remake" (as was the case with Videodrome and eXistenZ). Unlike Violence, the tension here heats up like the proverbial frog in a pot of boiling water—by the time Anna realizes that she and her family are in danger, it's far too late to escape. Both films have "twists" that dramatically change the course of the plot, but the twist in Promises is far less jarring than the one in Violence, yet it nonetheless makes both the film's morality and ultimate conclusion even more ambiguous. Promises is also tied together by the disembodied voice of Tatiana, the young dead mother, gradually telling her tragic, brutal story piece by painful piece. This film has greater coherence than Violence, and as such is more "approachable" for the average viewer. Ultimately, this is a mob film that isn't substantively different from The Godfather or Donnie Brasco.
But it still has the hallmarks of Cronenberg's best work: it makes you think, and it makes you uncomfortable. It's got the facile marks of Cronenberg, of course—loveless sex, spurting blood, corpses. But he deploys these stereotypical Cronenberg elements wisely (and infrequently) here, using them with more precision and a lighter touch than in Violence. (Admittedly, a lighter touch probably would have been inappropriate in Violence, conflicting with its unexpected-punch-in-the-face tone.) There is an ending, and a clear ending at that, but it merely resolves the story, leaving us to ponder many of the characters' true fates, motivations, and secrets. It's not a case of wondering whether what you've just seen is true or not (like, say, Total Recall); it's a sense that you may have misinterpreted various things during the film such that your overall interpretation of events may or may not have been correct. It doesn't rise to the level of "I have to watch this again to check," though, it's more like a lingering doubt that won't go away. It makes the story just a little more compelling that it would be otherwise.
Eastern Promises reunites Cronenberg with his History of Violence star, Viggo Mortensen. Mortensen is in many ways the perfect actor for Cronenberg—prepared, intense, and intelligent. Cronenberg, for his part, always seems to bring out the best in the actors he chooses (even Peter Weller, for Pete's sake!), and he's worked with some very talented folks: Oliver Reed, James Spader, James Woods, Roy Scheider, Jennifer Jason-Leigh, and Ralph Fiennes, to name but a few. But Mortensen just seems to click with Cronenberg's insular, claustrophobic worldview. Here, as the vague and undefined menace that is Nikolai, he gives a strong yet subtle performance that is arguably the best of his career. True to Russian culture, Nikolai is excruciatingly cautious in what he says and does, never wanting to reveal a hint of the truth to anyone, even his closest friends and associates. His persona is so blurry that you can never truly bring him into focus, and no amount of effort will change that.
Mortensen's supporting cast is equally strong. I wouldn't have thought that a German (Mueller-Stahl) and a Frenchman (Cassel—who, by the way, is married to Monica Bellucci, that lucky Gallic dog…) would play pitch-perfect Russians, yet here they are doing just that. Cassel is terrific, but he's also playing his typecast role of "violent guy with erratic temper" (which makes him the French James Caan, I guess). Mueller-Stahl brings a decidedly non-Italian twist to what could have been a generic criminal godfather role; his seemingly grandfatherly persona is laced with malice and darkness in a very nuanced way.
Finally, there's the glowingly hot Naomi Watts. Watts has, to my mind, been vastly underrated as an actress. In my book, if Lynch AND Cronenberg both affirmatively chose her, she's gotta be good. Anna is—and I know I'm sounding like a broken record at this point—a subtle character. Her character arc is a rough metaphor for the story of Tatiana the dead Russian girl—initial good intentions turn into a nightmarish hell. But unlike Tatiana (who is violently raped), Anna never faces a sharp transition into a new reality. It comes gradually, as she puts two and two together to realize the mess she's gotten herself into. Hence, there aren't a lot of histrionics in this performance. Watts fleshes out her character through facial expressions and body language. It's not the kind of performance that will earn her awards or draw a lot of attention to her, but it's the kind of solid, high-quality, reliable performance that's the hallmark of a quality actor.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The only problem with this disc—and it was the case with A History of Violence as well—is the lack of DVD content, especially given that Videodrome and Naked Lunch were recently given such authoritative and thorough releases by Criterion. The transfer and audio for Eastern Promises are perfectly fine; they're both at the standard level you would expect from a recent theatrical release. However, there are only two thin featurettes here; a "making of" quickie and a short explanation of the importance of tattoos among Russian criminals. But there's no commentary track, and precious little input from the director and actors in the featurettes. Cronenberg is an absolutely fascinating guy—intelligent, very well-spoken, and far more thoughtful than you'd expect. His commentary tracks are both definitive essays on the film in question and discount film school courses. You will rarely find a more interesting director than David Cronenberg, and leaving his input out of a DVD release is practically a crime. Likewise, Mortensen is a fascinating guy, too. He's also a very intelligent and thoughtful guy, and does a ton of preparation for his roles. In this case, it turns out he went to Russia on his own and just "mingled" with the locals—even though he didn't speak any Russian. How many stories must that trip have generated? But we don't get to hear any of them here. This is a rich film about a very real but very poorly-understood criminal world. You could probably fill an entire disc with background information on the vor v zakone; instead, we get the barest minimum of information, just enough to put the film into a semblance of a context. The omission of extra features here is even more disappointing than its absence on History of Violence—because Violence was based on a graphic novel, and one could always just go read that to fill in some of the blanks. But this film, although a fictional story, is based in a very real Russian subculture that exists not just in London, but in many major U.S. cities. It's 2008 now, and bareboned DVD releases like this just don't cut the mustard for high-quality films like this.
Finally—and this isn't a knock on the film, but on the filmmaker himself—I'm starting to worry that Cronenberg films are rapidly getting to the point where they're no longer "Cronenberg films." Eastern Promises is a great film, but it lacks the obvious uniqueness of Cronenberg's earlier films. You watch eXistenZ, and you have zero doubt who made it. If I told you that Eastern Promises had been directed by Mike Nichols, though, you'd probably believe me, because you'd have no reason—like, say, the presence of a chest-vagina that James Woods uses to store his gun—to doubt me. I don't think Cronenberg is ever, ever going to be a bad director—but I fear he's losing his uniqueness. Eastern Promises is an intelligent mob drama laced with Russian xenophobia and a dollop of claustrophobia. It just isn't uniquely Cronenberg. And that makes me a little sad.
Eastern Promises is one of the most straightforward films that David Cronenberg has ever made, which is great for everyone but long-time Cronenberg fans. It's a very enjoyable crime drama that will give your brain a good workout, and features some excellent acting performances. As long as you don't expect a lot of gross-out oozing private parts, you'll likely be pleased. I just wish there was more on this DVD than just the film and some small featurettes. It's a missed opportunity, making this a rental only while you wait for a more definitive edition to add to your Cronenberg collection.
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• Featurette: Secrets and Stories
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