"Vat you say ve ditch lame movie ent go look foor babes?"
As I previously mentioned, one of the perks of living in a Great American City is the early movie releases. So I was very excited to hear that the new David Cronenberg film, Eastern Promises, was getting an advance screening in the District. And yesterday was a beautiful fall afternoon — perfect for a stroll and a flick.
I’d read a few reviews of Promises; critics generally seemed to rate it a bit lower than Cronenberg’s last outing, A History of Violence. I’ve been with the dude since The Brood, so I wasn’t about to be put off by some squeamish stuff-shirt from The New Yorker.
For about two-thirds of the film, I was convinced I was watching a masterpiece. Cronenberg is a master of tension and mood, and the movie is extremely consistent in both. The acting is brilliant, with Viggo Mortensen turning in the most powerfully understated performance of his career. Any cooler and he’d be a block of ice. Creepy, handsome ice. Naomi Watts has a chilly charm of her own, and the supporting cast is a rogue’s gallery of foreign character actors.
The story takes place in the UK around Christmas. The overcast urban setting provides solemn visual reinforcement to the terse pacing and unsettling vibe. Watts plays Anna, a British lass of mixed heritage — her late father was Russian, as is her vodka-soused curmudgeon of an uncle, with whom she and her mum share a cramped flat. Anna works as a midwife for a London hospital, where her life is thrown into upheaval by the arrival of a pregnant teenage prostitute who dies during emergency childbirth. The baby is left without a family, its only heirloom the mother’s diary. Anna sets about to have it translated, hoping to discover the names of the girl’s relatives.
Anyone wondering whether Cronenberg still has an icky body fetish need only witness the shots of the slime-spackled infant and its umbilical cord, which looks like a tubular jellyfish. The latter is summarily snipped, close-up style.
Anna first approaches her uncle for help with the diary. He demurs, not wanting to contaminate his heart with what he knows is surely a tale of abuse and neglect. Undeterred, Anna visits a Russian restaurant — she found a business card inside the journal — where she meets Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the avuncular yet off-putting proprietor. He feeds her some borscht and offers to both translate the diary and contact the deceased girl’s relatives — provided Anna bring it back the following evening. It’s obvious that there was a relationship between the restaurateur/mob don and the teen prostitute, and it probably wasn’t a healthy one.
Semyon’s only son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel), is a stereotypically weak heir, content to drink himself into oblivion while taunting the girls his father has enticed into a life of drug addiction and sexual slavery. Kirill’s driver (and object of homoerotic adulation) is Nikolai (Mortensen), who also works as family "undertaker." Fingerprints and dental records are no match for Mortensen’s post-mortem wire cutters. What’s this again about Cronenberg having lost his taste for the grisly?
I don’t want to spoil the plot, which steams along towards what I hoped would be an ending worthy of great noir. Unfortunately, this promise is unfulfilled. Much of the fault lies with screenwriter Steve Knight (Dirty Pretty Things), who has an ear for dialogue but relies too heavily on coincidence and deus ex machina resolutions. He attempts to patch up multiple plot holes with self-reflexive asides, as though filmmaking were an algebra equation one could balance with a little preemptive exposition.
It’s a shame, too, ’cause the actors really give it their all, and Cronenberg matches their intensity by maintaining an air of treacherous gravity. Mortensen’s performance is akin to early Robert De Niro; both men’s eyes betray an almost carnal brutality, but with a hint of humanity which, at the end of the day, may only be a trick of the light.
You may have already heard about the bathhouse scene, which is destined to go down as one of Cronenberg’s most intense set pieces. It’s about a hundred times more aggressive than any of the fights in the Bourne movies, and boasts the sound of ribs cracking and tendons snapping in place of a musical score. Oh, and Mortensen does battle in his birthday suit — in several shots, you can even glimpse his Andúril.
Despite the terrific performances and unflinching atmosphere, Eastern Promises is a major disappointment. I can’t think of two guys better suited to plumb the icy depths of the Slavic soul than Cronenberg and Mortensen, but this flick ultimately goes down like diluted vodka.
In other news, it looks like there was a little trouble down on the Mall yesterday. Gotta love that chemical spray. Glad we went to the movies instead.
Here’s a nice shot of the back door of the Capitol Building I took last week. You can’t see the dudes with the M-16s. But they are there, trust me:
See, here’s one:
OK, off to enjoy the beautiful, 61 degree, cloudless day.