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.


The Searchers

What a weird Western this is...Tonally, most of all: while the topic is dead-serious and the "hero" not really much of a hero at all, there are many moments of odd, jarring comic relief. Wayne plays an odd character here, one who knows much about the Comanch, speaks their language, but hates them, even wants to kill his niece for just having been close to them. He's a bit of a madman, really, especially when he starts shooting.

Nowadays, this would of course mean a psychologically motivated flashback to the incident in his past that caused this, but here it's all left to our imagination, which is unsatisfying but all the more intriguing. Unfortunately, Wayne doesn't show us many shadings, never allows us to think he's thinking something more, and the conflict in his personality can only be seen in his actions. It's a good thing Martin is there to act as an audience substitute (and to walk around shirtless a lot).

It took me a while to get into the movie, but once it grabbed me I liked it quite a bit. I'm still more in favor of the more self-conscious, reflexive kind of westerns, spaghetti westerns in particular, but this film has made me eager to watch more older ones, and find out what those were reflecting upon. Any recommendations?


Oh, and you should all be reading this. Including comments. And follow-ups.


Top 50 - # 3 - The Man Who Wasn't There

Finally then! Craig was right again.

One of the best cinematic experiences I've ever had was watching The Man Who Wasn't There on the big screen, 4 years after it came out, and after two or three viewings on DVD. Roger Deakins' own print was being shown, and the man himself was in attendance. I've never seen black and white more glorious, more crisp but at the same time also oddly warm, and this screening is when my love for this film turned to adoration.

Deakins also did a Q&A afterwards. I didn't really understand half of the Q's and three quarters or the A's due to all the technical lingo, but I sat there fascinated anyway because he spoke with such enthusiasm about his craft. He was impressively modest. It wasn't any sort of false humility: he knows he's good at what he does. He clearly sees what he does as a craft though, something you need some talent for but mostly a lot of experience, and there was not an ounce of pretentiousness to detect. I really think he's on the best cinematographers working today, and it's ridiculous that he has yet to win an Oscar (he was nominated 5 times, but never got to take home that statuette).

There's much more, of course, than just the cinematography. One of its greatest assets is Billy Bob Thornton as Ed Crane, the barber who rarely speaks except in his voice-over. He's the ultimate noir protagonist: essentially good, well, not evil, but cursed by his one flaw, which ironically enough is ambition.

Ambition? You wouldn't say it from the way he flatly says "Me? I don't talk much. I just cut the hair", but there is a spark there. He doesn't want much, but he does want a little bit more. Just a bit of independence, a bit more than just cutting the hair. An escape: something undetermined, unplanned.There are too many great moments to mention. Ed shaving his wife's legs, carefully, then his legs getting shaved later on. The murder scene. The Riedenschneider speech, and the shadows of the bars. The UFO's. But the two that resonate most with me have to do with Birdie, played by Scarlett Johanssen before she got all glamorous. The first is when Ed's brought her to a fancy piano teacher. He asks him "How did she do?" and the piano teacher answers:

"She seemed like a very nice girl. She plays, monsieur, like a very nice girl. Stinks. Nice girl. However: stinks."

It's a crushing moment, and Thornton underplays it beautifully. Later, in the car, Birdie calls him an enthusiast, and it's an assessment both ridiculous and strangely accurate. He is an enthusiast, even if he never betrays any emotion more acute than slight surprise, he is someone who likes things in a quiet, but unwavering way.

Or maybe I'm just reading things into him, because above all else, Thornton's Ed is a blank slate, someone everyone projects their own idea upon, like you can see images in clouds, or in the billowing smoke that comes from Ed's permanent cigarette. To his wife he's the reliable dud she married. To her brother he's a pillar of strength and a listening ear. To her lover he's harmless, an innocent. To Birdie he's a strange sort of sugar daddy, to the wonderfully named Creighton Tolliver he's a mark. Most memorably, to Riedenschneider, he's nothing less than "the modern man".

"What kind of man are you?" Big Dave asks, repeatedly. What kind of man is he? The kind you can make an endlessly fascinating film about.

Next up... a movie which ends memorably, with both main characters saying..."Okay"