Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Director Report Card: David Cronenberg (2007)

18. Eastern Promises

Following the award season recognition of “A History of Violence,” David Cronenberg was suddenly a big deal even outside the world of horror nerds. The director would quickly re-team with Viggo Mortenson, the two collaborating together on a buzzy screenplay from celebrated British screenwriter, Steven Knight. The resulting film, “Eastern Promises,” would also earn critical praise. Mortenson would be nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award and the film would gain numerous other nods and awards. Among Cronenberg fanboys, “Eastern Promises” was more divisive.

A pregnant fourteen year old girl, showing the obvious signs of drug addiction, is wheeled into an emergency room. The girl dies during childbirth but the child is fine. Anna, a midwife and nurse, discovers a journal, written in Russian, among the girl's possessions. She takes a copy to Semyon, the owner of a Russian restaurant, for translation. She's unaware that Semyon is also a local crime boss. The girl was sex trafficked by the mob and Semyon is the father of her child. He orders Nikolai, a high ranking mob enforcer, to keep an eye on Anna. The two develop an odd friendship as they work to protect the innocent baby from Semyon and Kirill, his unstable son.

It's very tempting to draw a line between “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises,” thinking of the two as companion pieces. Both movies deal with the theme of family. Anna is living with her aunt and uncle, after being left by her husband. She draws them into the mystery, the Russian-speaking uncle helping to translate the journal. Anna quickly grows attached to the baby, naming it Christine and obviously wanting to adopt it. This contrasts with the Russian mobsters, a different sort of family unit. Kirill struggles to earn his father's acceptance. Semyon regards Nikolai as a surrogate son, a more worthy heir. So Kirill looks up to Nikolai like an older brother of sorts. Ultimately, Kirill is called upon to execute his infant half-sister. The story is set during the week between Christmas and New Year's, lending the role of births and children more significance.

The themes of family and brotherhood, however, are mostly dressing on a fairly standard crime story. There's a lengthy subplot in “Eastern Promises” about the rivalry between the Russian mob and the Chechens. This does not connect with the main story in any particularly important way. (Though it's notable that one of the mob associates, a barber, gets his autistic son involved in the criminal activities.) “Eastern Promises” also deals with the controversial and topical subject of human trafficking. It seems the film came out around the time that topic was in the news, people suddenly talking a lot about teenage girls being hooked on heroin and sold into sexual slavery. In many ways, the film feels more like a route genre effort than some of Cronenberg's horror movies. This is a mobster movie with little else to differentiate it.

So you can see Cronenberg attempting to add some of his unique flare to a somewhat standard story. This is most notable in the homoerotic element of Nikolai and Kirill's friendship. The deeply homophobic Semyon constantly expresses the fear that his oldest son may be queer. Kirill seems unable to attain an erection with a woman, which is one of the reasons why Semyon raped the teenage girl. Later, while partying with a crowd of clearly trafficked prostitutes, Kirill insists Nikolai has sex with one of the girls to prove he's straight. Kirill watches the two go at it a little too intently. He also hugs Nikolai a lot, further suggesting a possible attraction. The film takes place in the highly toxic and hyper-masculine world of organized crime, following that attribute to its natural, homoerotic conclusion.

Adding to that homoerotic edge is quite a deal of male nudity. There's a notable scene where Nikolai stands in nothing but his briefs before the mob elders, who examine his tattoos. Then there's the notorious Turkish bath fight. The most talked about scene in the movie is easily its most intense. Nikolai is attacked while completely nude in a steam house by Chechens with linoleum knives. Mortenson's graphic nudity emphasizes his vulnerability in this moment, as the knives slice his flesh. It's an tensely choreographed fight, the men tossing each other around. The focus on the blades breaking the flesh is the closest “Eastern Promises” comes to the director's trademark body horror. The end of the fight even features a seemingly dead body springing back to life, just like in a horror movie.

That cock-bearing fight scene got a lot of attention for Viggo Mortenson, as it's still very rare for a big movie star to expose himself so completely. That's but one example of the lengths Mortenson went for the part. Covered in extensively researched tattoos, Mortenson puts on a thick Russian accent. He exhibits a stiff, tough body language, often standing still with his hands crossed. He does a lot of acting with only his eyes and face, suggesting hidden depths. Nikolai is forced to live with a lot of brutality. Unlike the men around him, these events clearly weigh on Nikolai's mind. Mortenson shows these feelings without overdoing it.

There's another element that connects “Eastern Promises” with “A History of Violence” and Cronenberg's many other films. And I hate it. Midway through the film, following that brutal steam bath fight, it's revealed that Nikolai is actually a double agent. He's a spy for the Russian government who is deep undercover. While this certainly connects “Eastern Promises” with the double lives and fluid identities seen in Cronenberg's other films, it's such a cheap plot twist. The reveal is handled in a flat, shrugging way. It completely changes the context of Nikolai's behavior, taking him from a compelling criminal with a conscious to a man just doing his job. It's as if the screenplay was afraid to let the audience root for a “bad guy” and had to reveal that he's ultimately a “good” guy. It's a cheap shock, designed to get an audience “oh” out of the audience.

Starring opposite Mortenson is Naomi Watts. As Anna, Watts gives a highly emphatic performance. Her character is primarily motivated by wanting to give an abused young girl the proper respect in death that she didn't receive in life. Watts is strong and compelling in the part. In an odd case of fiction mirroring real life, Watts would become pregnant during filming. That's sort of funny, since her character adopts a child before the story is over. (The vintage motorcycle Anna drives throughout the film, which frequently breaks down and needs repairing, also seems like something Cronenberg specifically brought to the film.)

However, even Watts' performance is compromised in a way that bugs me. Throughout “Eastern Promises,” Anna and Nikolai form a friendship. Though she's clearly intimidated by the man, he's oddly kind to her. He even occasionally lets his tough exterior slip and tells a joke or two. Seeing the two very different people work together on a humanistic mission is interesting. Near the very end of the film, after saving the child, the two lean in and kiss each other. This not only ruins a relationship that was previously nothing but platonic, it also comes out of nowhere. There was no sign that the two characters were romantically or sexually attracted to each other. It's as if the film needed there to be a romance in there somewhere, regardless of how poorly that fit the story.

There's also some strong performances in the supporting cast. Vincent Cassel appears genuinely unhinged as Kirill. As dangerous and unstable as Cassel makes the character seem, he also projects a child-like vulnerability. Armin Mueller-Stahl as Semyon plays another character living a double life. To the public, he's a warm, grandfatherly figure. Privately, he's a brutal mob boss. Mueller-Stahl does well with these two sides. I also like Sinead Cusack and Jerzy Skolimowski as Anna's aunt and uncle, who are very likable while also showing a thorny, relatable element.

“Eastern Promises” wasn't exactly a commercial success, grossing only 56 million against a 50 million dollar budget. However, the film's critical popularity led to talks of the usually sequel-averse Cronenberg doing a follow-up. The sequel, entitled “Body Cross,” would've moved the action from London to Moscow. It would've been about Nikolai and Kirill's relationship, focusing on the former as he struggles to balance his double life. It's easy to see why Cronenberg would be attracted to that. The sequel fell apart due to budgetary reasons. In 2017, ten years after the original's release, talks of the sequel flared up again but nothing came of it again.

The idea of a sequel, which seems unlikely to happen after so many years, doesn't exactly excite me. “Eastern Promises” works fairly well through certain stretches. However, the insistence of inserting random plot twists and romances derails the film. Cronenberg fans are split on the film for another reason: It's easily the least Cronbergian Cronenberg movie. It feels a bit like a work-for-hire gig, which seems unlikely. Instead, I suspect the director was hoping to continue the critical attention he received for “A History of Violence.” The material, however, simply isn't as interesting. [Grade: C+]

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