The Reeler


September 13, 2007

Eastern Promises

Minor Cronenberg, despite his return to "body horror" and a naked bathhouse fight for the ages

Naked bathhouse fight. That's all you need to know about David Cronenberg's latest, and the only moment within that will resonate years from now. For a director so frequently devoted to the transgressive, Eastern Promises offers a different kind of spectacle: Cronenberg on auto-pilot. His chilly style is firmly in place, along with the requisite moments of gore; unfortunately, what he's serving up is sub-par Oscar-bait.

Like many fine actors (Russell Crowe and Edward Norton for starters), Cronenberg is incapable of distinguishing between good and bad material to work on. Not having written a screenplay since the '90s, he has coasted on dubious adaptations: Spider, 2002's asinine exercise in psychology 101, was a true nadir. 2005's A History Of Violence was a rebound of sorts: a ham-fisted critique of violence (i.e., it’s bad but ingrained) redeemed by bravura style and Cronenberg's willingness to bend towards camp. The most productively unnerving moments in Violence seemed unintentionally funny yet riveting; it worked despite intention.

Eastern Promises features none of this uneasy frisson, even as it posits an even more banal message (sex slavery is bad). Clarity of purpose and an unimaginative plot give Cronenberg a firmer handle on his tone, but less use for it. Howard Shore's score -- a melodramatic staple of Cronenberg's work since The Brood -- goes positively Schindler's List, ladling on maudlin violin solos in case the plight of child prostitutes wasn't heartrending enough. Then again, Cronenberg is right to distrust the material's inherent power: Steve Knight's screenplay, while not an abomination along the line of his similarly-themed Dirty Pretty Things, is overly obvious and poorly constructed.

Once again, we're shown a London in which the classic British accent is in the minority; Russians and Turks rule all. Enter Anna (Naomi Watts), a mild-mannered nurse inadvertently sucked into the Russian mob while trying to track down relations to adopt a baby whose mother has died. "We're ordinary people," mother Helen (Sinead Cusack) warns, but Anna doesn't listen. Innocent amateur detective work leads her to Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the seemingly kindly restaurant owner whose spontaneous violin renditions of Russian folk songs and tasty borscht blind her to the obvious: Mueller-Stahl plays villains at the same rate Morgan Freeman plays God and the president.

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Faced with the threatening of Semyon's chaffeur Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), Anna takes the courageous stance of... disappearing from the movie for almost the entire second half. Serving no real narrative purpose besides providing the outsider perspective and audience identification point, Anna is a bland construction. Fortunately, Nikolai allows Mortensen to amp up the stoic badass act he honed in A History Of Violence; he's prone to extinguishing cigarettes with his tongue and dropping Eastwood-isms like "Sentimental value. I've heard of that." (If you can't figure out who he really is halfway through, you're not trying; Knight's script can't even cover up its sole twist.) Predictably, he's also the chief inflicter and receiver of brutal acts of violence; while Eastern Promises is being oversold as Cronenberg's return to "body horror" (it's hardly more violent than its predecessor), the gory bits are the best parts. Necks are slit, corpses mangled, and -- finally -- Mortensen completely fucks up two people in the bathhouse while trying to keep his flapping genitalia intact.

Perhaps aware that the maudlin tone of the similarly themed Dirty Pretty Thingsmade it a chore to sit through, Cronenberg constructs Eastern Promises the way he would any violent entertainment, refusing to demand the audience's emotional involvement. He's surely one of the only directors comfortably straddling the line between art-house and genre-geek fare (a virtue in itself), but Eastern Promises finally has nothing to offer anyone who isn't a true believer already; the sum of its virtues is a lack of major offenses. It's a minor, non-risk-taking entry that re-establishes Cronenberg's style without adding anything new to it.

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