Friday, September 28, 2007

Oaths & Profanities

Yesterday's movie: Eastern Promises.

My only other exposure to director David Cronenberg was last year's A History of Violence, which seemed engrossing and well-crafted though not revolutionary. But the previews for Eastern Promises were intriguing, gloomy and tense. I intentionally did not read any external reviews before seeing it, looking instead only at Yahoo's composite critics' roundup, where it was given exceptionally high grades. So I went in with relatively few expectations.

A nice English nurse, played by Naomi Watts, gets tangled up with some characters from the Russian mob, played by Viggo Mortensen, Vincent Cassel, and Armin Mueller-Stahl after she helps deliver a baby to a mortally-injured teenager. The girl, a Jane Doe, has a diary on her which is written in Russian, and when the nurse seeks help in getting the diary translated (so she might figure out where the girl's family--and the baby's family--is), she asks the wrong people. (Why the police are not taking care of this task is not explained.) Anyway, lots of bad things happen, and the film is an exploration of where the humanity of some widely-divergent groups of characters lies and what events it takes to reveal it.

I like Viggo Mortensen, though I can't say I've ever been able to relate to his characters. He has a screen presence, a face for the camera--it strikes me that he would make a good American James Bond. I was skeptical about how well he would pull off playing a Russian guy who seems just off the boat; but it turns out that his presence is a good deal of what he is called upon to provide here. His is not a verbal character, which makes his Russian speech, and Russian-accented English, more believable. (Actually, I took a bit of Russian in college--not that I remember any of it--and his accent is not distractingly bad.) He is a walking tattoo billboard, and he plays that part of his role to perfection.

There are the expected scenes of violence and murder, but Cronenberg shoots them without music or fancy camera work, and it all has a rather sickening realism to it. I expected a violent movie (this is the notorious Russian Mafia, after all), but the unstylized and graphic nature of the brutality caught me off guard. As clearly it did the few other people in the theater for the matinee. In the silence after an unexpected sudden act of savagery, an elderly man coughed "HOLY Jesus!"

But for all its stomach-churning realism, the violence does not seem gratuitous; it all serves to push the story along. My having few expectations served me well, as the plot had just enough twists to keep me a little off balance. Though you may be guessing about some particulars, the broad plotline has an inevitability about it that is almost predictability. Cronenberg saves his effort with a few little twists, but he's not out to rewrite how movies are made. There is a pall of foreboding over every scene, and an always-palpable threat of a small family of normal working folks getting sucked into a life that's WAY beyond their security clearance. This seems a much-used plot device. But exactly how some of these expectations play out is distinctive and one of the director's deliveries.

Overall, the movie makes London seem like a place I don't need to visit, let alone live. There are scenes with lovely architecture, but the private dwellings of people are all depressingly dank, and the weather in the movie is always oppressive. I read someone's one-line distilled review which said "London will never seem safe again," and there is a sense that quite immense evil is lurking right behind otherwise-civilized facades, including in people who clean up very well. Viggo Mortensen has an extended nude fight scene in a Turkish bath that is excruciating to watch. There's nothing like a fella's bits hanging out there while he gets thrown around and slashed at with a knife to make one feel... vulnerable. It's not a word that associates readily with his character, but it's a tenuous point of attachment between a character like that and a guy like me. I cringed the whole time for him.

I came back from the movie yesterday wanting to write a little something up, but I couldn't quite figure out what I thought of it. Now, a day later, I'm still not quite sure. I'm not always the keenest viewer, and this might be a movie where a second viewing would be beneficial. I'm glad I went, but I'm not sure it's a movie to like, exactly.

So, for craft and performances, a provisional grade: B+

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Probably not a movie I'll go and see. I have an aversion to violence, I have enough scary things going on inside my head, I don't need to see more.

Have you ever seen "Dirty, Pretty Things"? That one is also set in London, very good movie.