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September 25, 2007

Moviegoing: "Eastern Promises"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

My first time to a movie theater in months and it's a dud: David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises." Set in a grimy present-day London, it's a crime melodrama about an earnest blonde midwife (Naomi Watts) who stumbles into an underworld of violent yet mysteriously attractive Russian (and Chechen, and Ukrainian, etc) thugs, played by Viggo Mortensen, Vincent Cassell, Armin Mueller-Stahl, etc.

Viggo, Naomi: To trust, or not to trust ...

The film's main purpose seems to be to showcase this seedy underworld -- to lift up the boulder of respectability and inspect the squirmy and slimy cosmos that thrives beneath it. To that extent -- as a piece of pop anthropology -- the film has its fascination. These dangerous and ambitious immigrants have their own rituals, their own pleasures, and their own business networks. Musings about globalization and its consequences are definitely being encouraged here.

The film's main problem is its turgid and ponderous tone. In the creepy-crawly, trippy-erotic horror films that Cronenberg is best-known for -- "Videodrome," "Crash," "eXistenZ", etc -- the clinical, slow-motion, metaphysical-dread thing that is his specialty can hypnotize and horrify. Something appalling yet alluring always seems to be on the verge of being disclosed. Existence itself seems to be in the process of cracking open; the true horror that lies beyond pop horror will be there for us to inspect.

Here, though, Cronenberg's tone just seems clunky, pretentious, and perverse. Although the material being presented (needy girls sold into prostitution, ancient vendettas between mysterious ethnic groups, etc) is certainly dark and scary, the script (by Steve "Dirty Pretty Things" Knight) doesn't have anything like the imagination or resonance it would need to justify the turgidity with which it's presented.

The immigrant gangsters are sleekly repulsive / attractive -- Mortensen and Cassel have worked out a bizarre and sinister rapport, that's for sure. And Cronenberg and his art director are pretty effective at conveying the allure of tribal food and "ethnic"-style family rituals. But the film's only real bit of freshness is limited to one scene: a fight-in-a-Turkish-bath scene. The choreography, camera, and editing are effective at conveying the mass and weight of flesh and bone, the pain inflicted by knives and fists, and the unwillingness of bodies to die. The power and vulnerability of all this are heightened immensely by the genuinely brilliant idea of having Mortensen play the scene completely nude.

But that's it for "memorable." The film generally is such a ponderous and earnest drag that I sat there getting ever more irreverent. "What is the big, dread-provoking deal anyway?" I kept wondering. (I also kept wondering: "Wow, can you think of a less-enticing way of using the wonderful Naomi Watts?") My guess is that the film's message -- because the film certainly feels like a solemn message-movie -- is intended to be something like "The children will pay for our sins," or maybe "Sexual slavery is a bad thing." Not exactly shocking news on either count. But I confess that my irreverence really ran away with me. The Russians (and Chechens and Ukrainians, etc) on display here are such repulsive, corrupt reptiles that I finally decided that the movie's message might just as well be taken to be, "Be careful who you admit into your country."

I wrote here about Cronenberg's "A History of Violence," which was somewhat similar but which I had a much easier time sitting through. The Wife -- a major Cronenberg buff and a huge fan of "A History of Violence" -- was ready to leave "Eastern Promises" after 15 minutes. She wouldn't tell me why she liked the one film so much more than the other. I suspect that it had something to do with the "angry but hot sex on the stairs" scene in "History." In any case, no such sexy scene here, alas.

I'm curious how Tatyana will respond to the movie. Will she find Viggo (American), Vincent (French), and Armin (German) convincing as Russians?

Steve Sailer reacted to the movie rather like I did. Commenter Bill on Steve's posting writes a few paragraphs about vulnerable young Russian girls and tough Russian thugs that are more vivid than Cronenberg's movie.

C.H.U.D. interviews David Cronenberg; Amy Taubin talks to him; and The Washington Post does too.



posted by Michael at September 25, 2007


Except maybe for that sex scene, I thought there wasn't a second of "A History of Violence" that was remotely believable, and it didn't have enough style to compensate (or maybe it's more accurate to say that it's not the kind of style I'm fond of).

I'm not sure where Cronenberg's new exalted reputation comes from. He seems to be making the same kinds of plodding, overdeliberate, psychologically unconvincing movies he's always made. I realize he's gotten respect in the past, for things like "Dead Ringers," but why the sudden Grand Master status? It must be his recent turn to cops-n-robbers, men-with-guns material. Much easier for critics and audiences to swallow than bioports and head trips.

Posted by: Steve on September 25, 2007 2:34 PM

Cronenberg's films have always been "clunky, pretentious, and perverse." None of them are exactly examples of meticulous craftsmanship and his narratives tend to ape third rate Hollywood cliches. I often wonder if he wasn't a kind of artist who fell into the wrong medium. When I think of his films, I don't think of the story or the dialogue or the cinematography or the editing, all of which are usually pretty pedestrian, what I do think of are those appalling gynecological instruments from Dead Ringers or the meat gun/hand from Videodrome, or the various new orifices he's come up with throughout his oevre. Cronenberg seems to belong to a group of filmmakers, like James Whale and Tim Burton, who seem to me to only incidently work in film. What they are really interested in is set design or costuming or whatever. I tend to prefer that the films I watch actually work as films, but I can still see what attracts people to the work of these other kinds of artists. However, take away from Cronenberg his crazy props and make-up and orifices and there isn't much left.

Posted by: Thursday on September 25, 2007 4:07 PM

i thought viggo and vincent were good but naimi was either wasted or not very good. i think her friend nicole kidman is a much better, stranger (she seems like a little girl at times then like someone who'll stab you with a ice pick the next) actress and i'm not even that big a fan of her. naimi's attractive and i thought she was good in mullholland drive and king kong (yeah, i said it) but most of the time she's just playing this sorta deer in the headlights type part. but then i'm more of a julianne moore kind a guy.

as far as cronenberg goes i liked shivers, dead ringers, HOV, naked lunch, the dead zone, and videodrome other not as much.

Posted by: t. j. on September 25, 2007 11:47 PM

... the script (by Steve "Dirty Pretty Things" Knight)...

What?? I should hope he would be remembered as Steve Amazing Grace Knight. Sheesh!

Posted by: Lester Hunt on September 26, 2007 12:38 PM

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