Monday, September 17, 2007

2 Minute Film Review: Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg)

Those looking for depth, as always, are advised to search elsewhere.

As part of the microscopic minority that was under-whelmed by A History of Violence I’m likely to be in an equally small grouping in considering this a return to form for Cronenberg, retreating to familiar territory and some of the ickier, transgressive imagery his career has been built upon, the irony being that Eastern Promises is also the most widely-accessible film he’s made since The Fly. Like all of his best films, this is one of icy tone and alien settings, with most of the film’s emphasis placed on the clash between various immigrant subcultures in contemporary London, particularly the violent, densely-layered Russian underworld. After taking a detour to skewer the perception (and celebration) of homicidal tendencies bubbling beneath the surface of placid Americana with History, the director’s back to deconstructing the seemingly infinite number of ways a human body can be violated, with almost fetishistic appreciation of prison tattoos as a form of self-identification and mob hierarchy.

If Eastern Promises feels greater than the sum of its parts it’s because it is, following the minimalist lead of star Viggo Mortensen (who probably rivals Matt Damon in The Bourne Ultimatum for least dialogue spoken by a leading man in a film this year), the film slithers along on attitude and malevolence always hinting at violence that may never come to pass yet places the viewer in the role of the Naomi Watts character as the outsider bearing witness to everyday, almost disaffected, evil so corpulent it resides in plain sight. We’re getting a peek behind the curtain, catching a glimpse of archaic rituals and old world traditions with the director equally transfixed by the professional detachment of “processing” a body for disposal as he is the arrangements of flower pedals on an ornate pastry. The broad strokes of the film’s criminal activities are largely ignored or inferred (this is a decidedly claustrophobic look at both contemporary England as well as organized crime) yet the details are presented in horrific, and at times quite amusing, detail.

The themes are far from groundbreaking (he types a few hours after “The Sopranos” sweeps The Emmys for its final time) but the milieu is fascinating and if Cronenberg merely intended it as set dressing to gussy up a fairly pedestrian child in peril hand-wringer (second one as many weeks, funny enough) it’s enough slight of hand to convince me for long stretches I was watching the best film of the year.

The problem is, no matter how skillfully it neglects it, the film is ultimately a slave to its own disconnected plot, and if it goes to great distances to push all that dispiriting “why-done-it?” stuff to the film’s final act (like saving your vegetables for the end of dinner) it’s especially unpleasant when it arrives to collect its bill. The film was written by Steve Knight who also wrote Dirty, Pretty Things, which if memory serves was a pretty compelling film about London’s immigrant working class that became weighed down by a dopey plot (something about harvesting organs, right?) and as evidenced by Eastern Promises, he hasn’t really switched up his M.O. any. Without giving anything away, the film begins to resemble the low-rent genre piece its detractors are convinced it is the deeper it gets into Viggo’s motivations, doing a hell of a disservice to the actor’s mesmerizing and evasive performance. The safer the film makes the passage for the viewer as outsider, the less interesting the journey is. B+

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