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Written on the Body: David Cronenberg?s Eastern Promises

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(Focus Features)

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Friday, September 14, 2007



Eastern Promises
Directed by David Cronenberg
(Focus Features)

Reviewed by Mark Asch

Much of the naysaying against A History of Violence has concerned the level of moral ambiguity in the protagonist’s violent acts: Are his homicides too justifiable? Is their presentation insufficiently unpalatable? I never had any problems with the film on those grounds: With every flayed cut-in and queasy bone-snap, David Cronenberg’s gross-out chops sold me on the implicit horror of What a Man’s Gotta Do. Viggo Mortensen’s Tom Stall/Crazy Joey may be “good at killing,” but it’s not easy, and certainly not pretty. In the winter-cold opening scene of Cronenberg’s latest, Eastern Promises, the semi-retarded nephew of a barber murders a customer with his uncle’s razor, sawing back and forth across his throat as if at a fatty piece of meat, before mercifully reaching the jugular.

Then again, my cringing doesn’t negate the responses of those who cried out or giggled or got off: nothing in cinema elicits a more subjective response than a depiction of the human body involved in a sexual or violent act. Who’s to proclaim the proper response to the centerpiece of Eastern Promises, a fight sequence in the steam room of a Russian bathhouse, in which a primally naked Mortensen — Cronenberg’s Vitruvian Man, virile and exposed — fends off, climbs atop, and kills two knife-wielding Chechen assassins? Certainly not this gasping critic, any more than my fellow audience members who clapped in delight or shock, or the one who intoned, with self-satisfied sarcasm “Ouch.” And certainly not Cronenberg himself, whose staging of the fight renders his audience hyperaware of both the power and vulnerability of the human form. (André Bazin famously favored continuous takes and deep-focus cinematography for their resemblance to reality, in all its ambiguity — wonder what he thought of nudity?)

About that bathhouse: Mortensen, playing Nikolai Luzhin, a chauffeur/fixer for a London family of the Russian mob, is there on a business meeting, with a prospective partner who prefers the baths to conference rooms because “you can see [the other man’s] tattoos.” A charming euphemism, for nakedness both literal and figurative: as a cop explains later, in the Russian criminal brotherhood (the Vory v Zakone), a man’s tattoos symbolize his status and history. On the posters for Eastern Promises, Mortensen’s tattooed hands loom over the tagline “Every sin leaves a mark” — apparently even the marketing department is hip to Cronenberg’s reputation as The Body Artist, chronicler of the transformations of the human soul as they are writ on, or by, the skin, tissue, bones. (Cronenberg started out making horror movies; he knows what we look like all the way inside.) When Nikolai is tattooed with the stars signifying his ascension to the top of the family hierarchy — by the decree of boss and surrogate father Armin Mueller-Stahl, much to the petulance of the boss’s actual, dissolute son Vincent Cassel — a nearly nude Mortensen reclines on a blood red couch, in a room lit like a Rembrandt, while a tattoo artist draws on his chest. Anointing the body of the Son.

The thing about tattoos, though, is that they often cover up other tattoos. Cronenberg and Mortensen have talked about their discovery of the Russian mob’s language of flesh, and their insistence that screenwriter Steve Knight work more of it into his script. It's a script that, much of the time, plays like a Sunday magazine exposé Babelfished via Bob McKee’s Story: Days before Christmas, nurse Naomi Watts, she of the comfortable white, middle-class existence, delivers via emergency C-section the daughter of a dying 14-year-old Eastern bloc sex slave. Drawn to the motherless daughter (in a bit of bonding-via-dramatic device, she’s just had a miscarriage, making her a daughterless mother), and armed with the deceased’s diary (who at least could read, write and find the time to make regular entries between all the sexual exploitation), Watts discovers, on behalf of a presumably white, middle-class audience, the seamy underside of How the Other Half Lives.

For Mortensen’s part, he’s once again a seemingly moral man performing (or complicit in) acts of ambiguous morality, but Knight throws in a twist that scrambles the movie’s moral compass so late in the game, so perfunctorily and so pointlessly, as to render any final reckoning incoherent. But, lest we savage a screenwriter to salvage an auteur, let us at least note that Cronenberg’s deployment of Howard Shore’s damp score (even during voiceover excerpts from the diary of a dead teenage prostitute) hits the same generic marks as their collaboration in A History of Violence, with none of the quotation marks; that under his direction, Peter Suschitzky’s cinematography (warm and neutral for Watts’s apartment, broodingly dark for the Russian milieu) buys into Knight’s Two Londons schematic; and that, on Knight’s side of the ledger, the archetypal dynamic between Mortensen, Mueller-Stahl, and Cassel is anchored by flavorsome dialogue, well-delivered in low Russian and accented English.

If you look through the portfolios of lesser tattoo artists, you’ll see what a non-artful cover-up job looks like: less transformation than superimposition. This is the failing of Eastern Promises, and its fascination: It’s naked. You can see its tattoos.

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