Eastern Promises (Cronenberg, 2007)

It's impossible to say anything remotely meaningful or interesting about this movie without mentioning the (in)famous "bathhouse scene", so I won't even try. It is amazing. It's intense, it hurts, it's repulsive, yet you can't look away. It shows both how incredibly easy to harm a human body is, how tenuous human life, and at the same time in Viggo's sinewy body it shows how lean, mean, and resilient it can be at the same time. Malleable, too: all the tattoos make his body seem something manufactured, perfected, a symbol more than anything living, breathing, feeling pain.

Also, yes, he's nekkid.

Unfortunately, despite a few wonderful Cronenberg touches as described above, I'm not sure this film ultimately adds up to more than just a solid genre film. It's a bit unfair, of course: coming from an unknown I might have hailed this as a very promising debut, but coming from Cronenberg, especially just after A History of Violence, how could my expectations not be unfairly high? That movie was much simpler on the surface, but it could be read in so many ways that it got better the more you thought about it. This one? Well, there's a lot to it, and definitely a lot to say, but I'm not sure it'll yield much more on second viewing.

Oh, but there are so many nice touches here. A lot of directors don't quite know what to do with Vincent Cassel: he's ugly, really, with his extreme features, but he's magnetic on screen, and there's a strange vulnerability lurking under the surface. This latter quality especially comes through in the character of Kirill, who's psychotic, sadistic, certainly, but ultimately just a boy who knows he'll never be able to satisfy his dad's expectations.

And Viggo? Of course he's great. I often feel like resisting his self-seriousness, but his obsessive researching pays off. In just a simple sentence, "I'm the driver", he can reveal so much. The Shamus, who luckily keeps archives now, wrote memorably about him, and he makes a good point: you can see him think, but you're never told exactly what he's thinking. He's opaque, but not a cypher: he's someone who's learned not to show too much.

The screenwriter, Steve Knight, also wrote Dirty Pretty Things, a film I love, but the script is not as good as the main character, due to a third act twist in particular, that should have either been left out or explored in a little more detail. He gets the subculture right, and the desire to belong there, but he is at heart too enamored with genre plot devices. In the case of Dirty Pretty Things I think it works, breaking through all the building tension with a neat thriller resolution, but here it seems out of place. There's a kiss, too, that could easily have been left out altogether, and in my opinion should have been. Luckily, Cronenberg ends with an amazing shot, where Viggo Mortensen shows that just sitting at a table staring into the distance is acting, too.


cjKennedy said...

I didn't feel like I'd left the theater having seen something spectacular like I did with History of Violence, but I've been thinking about Eastern Promises a lot since and I really want to see it again.

I have a suspicion it's just as deep as History, but less easily digested. I don't know. We'll see.

Viggo was amazing and fearless. I was a little disappointed by what we ended up finding out about his character. I won't say to avoid spoilers, but I found the whole thing more interesting when it was more ambiguous.

Still, a very memorable movie even if it doesn't quite live up to expectations. Expectations are so unfair aren't they?

Hedwig said...

I agree, I didn't need that reveal at the end either, and I've been thinking about how the film would work without it. In fact, I've been thinking about how much Naomi Watts is needed in this movie, if her story could not have been cut out (working on a post on that). So I suppose, seeing how much I'm staying with this movie and thinking about it, it's also deeper than I thought.