Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Eastern Promises (2007)

Director: David Cronenberg
Screenplay: Steve Knight
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, and Vincent Cassel.

Images from the 2007 Focus Features release.

Eastern Promises, I am inclined to think, is one of David Cronenberg’s best works; a film that depicts the inheritance of social standing with heartbreaking detail. I know that some of Cronenberg’s fans have been disappointed with his turn to what is generally seen as more popular material, but I couldn’t be more impressed. What’s so refreshing is to see an artist not content to make the same film over again, but rather tinker with his own conventions, adding new layers to his repertoire while continuing to explore themes that interest him. Perhaps it helps that the first two Cronenberg films I saw were A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. When I saw them, I had no idea who he was, and as such, did not carry with me the rest of his oeuvre. I've now worked through 12 of his features, and I've grown to see the Mortensen collaborations as two of the most thoughtful meditations on the nature of violence. Deciding which of the two is better is difficult for me, but I am slowly convincing myself that Eastern Promises is the more complete work, with a pace that feels mournful and sad.

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If you’re wondering why I used the above picture to introduce the film, and not Naomi Watts or Viggo Mortensen, it’s because I believe the shot is one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful in the film: a young woman used as an object for a rite of passage. The film may be about another girl’s story, but this woman and every other woman has a story too, and her vacant gaze as she sings a lullaby reveals a soul so damaged, that where she comes from and who she is is reduced to names and facts. Whatever ambition she once had, perhaps to support a family or start a new life, is gone now and all that remains is a life of prostitution. She has been forced into this so brutally that we can see her spirit waning as she stares blankly into nowhere, having been chosen like a horse from a stable. To those trafficking women, she is viewed not as a human being but as a commodity to be bartered, sold, tortured, or used. It is frighteningly true, yet it is something most of us turn a blind eye to, as if our ignorance of the problem will make it disappear.

Cronenberg excels at portraying violence as it ought to be: Horrible, brutal, nauseating, and clumsy. Yet he is rarely exploitative of violence, and much of his work, including Eastern Promises, is more interested in developing characters. When violence does bubble to the surface, it erupts with such force that I continue to cringe after many viewings. You see action movies today, and most of the action has lost its shock value. The editing in those epic battle sequences has become so cookie cutter, you may as well just stick with The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Death has become belittled to a split second shot of a faceless enemy dying. These sorts of films, in a way, are morally reprehensible in their treatment of death as entertainment. Eastern Promises (and A History of Violence, for that matter), subverts the Hollywood convention. Even though the violence in something like Kill Bill is more graphic, the violence in Cronenberg’s films feels uncomfortable, grimy, and less exhilarating by comparison.

I’ve often wondered if violence should even have an entertainment value. I do enjoy movies like King Kong (2005) and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, yet they are guilty of defusing the brutality of violence for the audience’s comfort. And John Woo’s Hard Boiled is maybe the ultimate treatment of human beings as bodies to put bullets into and I still admire it. I can’t really account for why I still like these films at this point. Perhaps it is human to be drawn to violence, and the sort that does not make us cringe is what audiences crave most. I do think the value of showing the consequences and horrors of violence, however, has a significant place in the cinema, and it’s refreshing (?) to see Cronenberg do it with unnerving success.

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The fight scene in the sauna is one of the most brutal and ugly things I’ve seen in the cinema, and that, I think, is the core of Cronenberg’s philosophy to violence. Treating it as something real, rather than fantasy does not allow the audience to regard it at arm’s length. Instead, the film pushes the violence uncomfortably close to the audience, not offering them an external experience but rather a visceral one. Having Nikolai fight naked in a sauna adds a level of realism, and the audience identifies with his own vulnerability. Fight scenes in many Hollywood movies have the nasty habit of making it sleek and elegant, and the hero suffers minor scratches at best. In Eastern Promises, Cronenberg does not spare the audience and Nikolai is brutally slashed with linoleum knives.

Speaking of which, the setting and mode of attack is another stroke of genius. Cronenberg said he used linoleum knives because if the two guys were caught with them they could say: “They’re for work. We’re linoleum cutters.” Cronenberg is intentionally subverting the conventional switchblades of gangster films, grounding it that much closer to reality. These knives tell me: violence is not something remote, but it can happen at anytime and with the simplest of tools (a screwdriver or a hammer could've been used for that matter). The sauna, too, is not a normal association with violence. It is in fact, thought of as a sanctuary for peaceful discussion and meditation; a place for healing rather than wounding. Yet it is, in a way, Cronenberg’s own arena of meditation on violence, and as he exposes the audience to this brutality, he is getting under their skin and making them feel vulnerable. Vulnerability, I think, is a key part of Eastern Promises.

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Eastern Promises penetrates the surface of the Russian mob, concerning itself not with mechanics but with the people involved and the shockwaves of their criminality. This movie makes me feel so vulnerable, in part because I inhabit these characters’ own vulnerability. The scene where Kirill makes Nikolai have sex with one of his father’s prostitutes (from his own “stable”) is such a demeaning, exposed rendition to what is normally considered intimate and private. And afterwards, as I’ve already written, we see the damage of forced prostitution. Nikolai asks Kirilenko where she’s from, and how she responds is more important than what she says. She whispers her hometown like a faded memory that hangs by a thread. She appears lost in thought, willing herself to block out the awful treatment of her humanity. When Nikolai says: “stay alive a little longer,” I wondered what that meant. The first time I saw Eastern Promises, I doubted any benevolent intentions, but after a fourth viewing, I now think Nikolai had the hope of saving her. Martin Scorsese calls it the “goddess-whore” complex, and I’m inclined to believe Eastern Promises does it as well, if not better than, Taxi Driver.

After all, the central story of Eastern Promises is concerned with a woman who is forced into prostitution, raped and impregnated, and then dies giving birth. Birth is the miracle of life, and the tragedy is that in many parts of the world, giving life means a woman’s sacrifice of her own. It is the one thing men will never have the power to fully control. The gangster movie is often an arena for masculinity on display, and in Eastern Promises, the fa├žade of male power is flayed back to reveal their internal weaknesses. That men seek to force a woman’s ability to bear a child is terrible, yet it happens. And regardless of whether the audience wants these stones uncovered or not, Cronenberg is intent on lifting them up to reveal the horrors that exist in the world, because denying their existence will not make them go away.

The tattoos are a source of vulnerability as well as pride. To see them is to allow your entire life to be read: you are on display. It’s the body language, and by extension, the body, that tells who you are, not your words. They can be a source of pride and for Kirill, they mark his inheritance: “These stars are a fucking birthmark.” For Nikolai, the inheritance comes from an inability to escape his past. Any action that is performed is carried with him throughout his life, symbolized by the tattoos. In a way, this makes Eastern Promises a sequel-in-spirit to A History of Violence, which was also concerned with the idea of whether we could put aside our past and start anew.

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Inheritance is another layer to Eastern Promises, and it is intrinsically linked with the idea of an heir. Kirill doesn’t strike the same presence as his father (the subplot is concerned with a murder he orchestrated for rather petty reasons), yet Semyon clings to the fact that their blood is the same. He is willing to sacrifice the more practical Nikolai to save his weaker bloodline. At the same time, the illegitimate bloodline in Tatiana’s baby can be used against him, so he orders it to be destroyed. Kirill isn’t perfect (surprise!), but he has a level of humanity that brings a measure of hope. His inability to kill Tatiana’s child (and his half brother) is the mark of a merciful soul not beyond redemption.

If Eastern Promises is more brutal than A History of Violence (and I say it is), then it is also more hopeful by the movie’s end, offering the audience a reprieve that feels welcome and even deserved. I don’t believe the ending is a cop-out at all, because just as not every movie needs a happy ending, not every one need to drown the viewer in endless sorrow. Eastern Promises offers us hope in Anna, and her home feels like a sanctuary. Yet I wonder if this success story of Tatiana’s child will distract audiences from the hard fact that this is just one case in thousands of others. We are left not with a sense of closure and happiness, but with a sense of unease; something neither uplifting nor depressing but a decided uncertainty. I don’t know what’s the proper way to end a movie like this, and I am left wondering what intentions Cronenberg and Knight had (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing).

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