Thursday, September 27, 2007

Cronenberg's Gangster Film, "Eastern Promises"

As the title of Cronenberg’s 2005 film A History of Violence suggests, Cronenberg has a penchant for violence, and as the converted will know, this proclivity for blood extends to the squishy and squirmy. Thus it stands to reason that after mastering horror, sci-fi, and drama (and creating his own sub-genre which could be termed psych-fantasy-horror) Cronenberg would at last grapple with the most acclaimed genre of violence, the gangster film. Although Cronenberg had previously battled David Lynch in the “who is the weirdest” director debate, with Eastern Promises Cronenberg competes with Coppola and Scorsese to recount the story of an immigrant family in the throngs of the crime underworld.
To his credit, Cronenberg enlisted Viggo Mortensen to enchant the audience with Russian gangland exoticism. Mortensen, who so expertly walked the line between good and evil in A History of Violence, confuses our moral compass again. In Violence, his character's darker impulses had a veneer of pure Americana complete with diner pie and football games. This time he plays the foreigner, Nikolai, a tattooed mafia chauffeur whose moral roots are grounded outside the mob in goodness. A brief scene with a Scotland Yard detective in the second half of the film explains Nikolai’s true character; although Nikolai is determined to be a starred member of the Vory v Zakone, it is only to usurp power from evil, as we learn that Nikolai is in fact an informer. What’s more, although Mortensen’s gangster cool captivates the audience with its rugged elegance (i.e. when he puts his cigarette out on his tongue), an undercurrent of honesty portends his mafia future.
Naomi Watts as Anna is the most obvious of Nikolai’s longings towards honest goodness. The embodiment of pure female righteousness, Anna, a childless but baby-loving midwife, is the ideal foil to the testosterone-driven mafia. Perhaps it is divine intervention that brings this innocent creature to speak with the head of the Russian mob about a diary found on a teen that died in labor. The baby was saved and Anna feels it is her duty to find the family of the nameless deceased so as to save the newborn from foster care. Following a business card to the fine Russian restaurant found within the dead girl’s journal she meets the owner Semyon played by Armin Mueller-Stahl. It is this through this initial encounter that Semyon realizes the diary contains the most secret of secret mafia information, and that as long as the diary exists his operation is in danger of being discovered. The plot consists essentially of two intermingled intrigues:, Anna seeks justice in the name of the orphan baby while Semyon tries to keep the story quiet; in the more ambiguous, Nikolai struggles to climb into the mafia inner circle though his motives always remain mysterious. Is he seeking power? Or justice? In the name of Hollywood simplicity the film’s ending unites baby and Anna. Yet the second intrigue intones a sadder note: who is Nikolai and what are his true goals?
Although this film by no means competes with The Godfather or Goodfellas, it also fails to continue the originality of Cronenberg classics such as Videodrome or Dead Ringers. While the Cronenberg touch is much lighter this time around, the legacy is present in the subtle but transgressive homoeroticism, and in the exposition of Viggo Mortensen, first in black boy shorts and then completely nude. To this extent, Cronenberg modernizes the gangster picture and the Hollywood blockbuster. Although sexual tension between Anna and Nikolai is alluded to in the script, it is only homoerotic tension between Nikolai and Semyon’s son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) that surfaces. Perhaps Anna is too prissy in her cable-knit sweaters and hospital clothes to ignite a real fantasy for Nikolai (or the audience). In fact, he appears to be more interested sexually in Anna’s motorcycle. Thus, there is more on screen tension between the two men than there is between Anna and Nikolai, the scripted romance. Comforting Kirill, Nikolai embraces him from behind, stroking his shoulders. Finally, the camera closes in on the men as if to film a kiss when Nikolai lightly brushes Kirill’s cheek, and then backs away. In a more playful homo-sexed moment, a drunken Kirill falls to Nikolai’s feet, then on hands and knees pushes his ass in Nikolai’s direction. Kirill’s limp wrist is a mafia joke, and a source of denial and shame. It is never clear to what extent Nikolai is manipulating Kirill for power, allowing his butt slaps and ogling with hopes of a payback. Camera work enhances the queerness of their relationship, making their awkward co-dependency the most compelling element of their scenes together.
If your knowledge of Russia culture is as lacking as my own, and consists of vodka, bathhouses (and I suppose a sprinkling of literature) you will be pleased to see more of what you know in Eastern Promises. Vodka is not only a favorite beverage, it also serves as a disinfectant and an inflammant. There is also a Russian bathhouse, which provides Viggo Mortensen an occasion to expose his lean toned body, all the while keeping the film’s heterosexual meter high with a gruesome fight scene. Actually, our hero is the only nude combatant; the other fighters are heavily clothed in black leather jackets, making Viggo’s inked skin even more arresting. Fans will be happy to see here that Cronenberg is up to his usual tricks: just when you imagine that Nikolai has escaped the obese soldier’s knife, a last gasp of life requires a poking assault complete with an expert sound design of squish. There is also a humorous element to the scene’s anxiety: Mortensen’s nudity and his combatant’s girth freshly recall Borat, another film that posited contradictions of homophobia and mass culture.
The fight scene is the centerpiece of Eastern Promises and it is unfortunate that all that follows is a sentimental tying of strings. Anna’s dream of becoming a mom is fulfilled, and the dark and mysterious Nikolai becomes more of a gallant superhero. Yet Viggo Mortensen is the heart of the film, and his acting and charm are almost enough to temper the script’s melodrama and toxic finale. It is the last shot of Mortensen that reminds us that Nikolai’s true character is impenetrable. As he drinks alone in the dimly lit red of the Russian restaurant a hopeful voice-over of the dead Tatiana reads from her diary that life will be better in London than Russia, combining the travesty of an immigrant’s misfortune with Nikolai’s lonely vodka-induced stare. Irony has not entirely escaped Eastern Promises thanks to Mortensen’s skill and the remnants of Cronenberg’s vision.

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