Wednesday, September 12, 2007

David Cronenberg Can Do No Wrong In My Book - EASTERN PROMISES

Now that the embargo's been lifted, I can finally tell you that I've seen David Cronenberg's EASTERN PROMISES and am happy to report that it's another winner from the man I consider to be the world's greatest living filmmaker. As far as I'm concerned, it's an absolute must-see.

Gee, I'm sure glad that someone asked me to wait 2 weeks in order to tell you guys that. Lord knows I hate to be the bearer of good news.

Anyway, EASTERN PROMISES is a damn good film, sometimes an excellent one, and one of the most satisfying I've seen thus far this year. I've already read someone saying this was Cronenberg entering Scorsese territory, but I don't exactly see that. Certainly, he's working in a crime film (almost film noir) genre, but once it's all done you realize that it's still a Cronenberg film. While I'm sure it seems he's moving now into more conventional fare, I think what he's doing here is actually a progression of his ongoing theme of the human body in revolt. As in HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (which this film most certainly feels like a companion piece to), EASTERN PROMISES deals with the nature of family, although here it's more about what happens when someone is born into a violent family (and a violent world) as opposed to violence invading the family, and what we sometimes do to fight against this. Some of the characters accept their violent nature; others are troubled by it but go through it anyway, while the rest are revolted by it. For those who embrace it, it is a way of life, a time-honored tradition that’s marked on their bodies through a myriad of tattoos, again Cronenberg using the human body to tell his story. On the other end of it there is a newborn child, born of violence but being given a possible opportunity to grow up in a world without it. Cronenberg doesn’t drown the audience in sentiment, but just keeps it there in the background as a reminder, but at the same time, it is also a driving force of the film.

Of the many things to like about EASTERN PROMISES, one thing for me was giving us a look into this previously unseen world of London's Russian mob; for Cronenberg, its interest lie not so much in all the crime but in the violence. That side of things seemingly is given free reign to do what it pleases and it's obvious to me that this fascinates Cronenberg. If you really think about it, how much actual "violence" have Cronenberg's films had? In truth, not a lot. Films like VIDEODROME and SCANNERS may have had a lot of gore, but all of that was peripheral to the story, while here (as in HISTORY), it is the story. It's a world of killers and into it comes a pair of innocents who the killers seek to either corrupt or destroy outright. Stories like these have been told hundred of thousands of times, but it feels fresh in Cronenberg's handling. This isn't THE DEPARTED or some big mafia melodrama, but a small story with just a few characters and what brings them together and links them to one another, which just happens to be violence. The film's characters are seemingly first split into "good guys" and "bad guys", but by film's end those labels aren't quite so right. Are you born with this violence or are you able to choose to not give into it? Cronenberg gives this oft-used theme more weight than is often seen and when it's long over and you're thinking about the film, you realize that it fits in with Cronenberg's other films while in the end becoming one of his most humane. Just one more thing that makes me love this guy more so than any other filmmaker around.

Credit Cronenberg, too, for his absolutely superb depiction of onscreen violence here; the bathhouse scene, already becoming legendary, reminded me of the famous prolonged murder scene from Hitchcock’s TORN CURTAIN, but this one outdoes it. Murder is not only ugly and painful, but also tremendously difficult, too, and you can’t forget that after seeing this. Credit should also go to the choices that star Viggo Mortensen makes in this scene (sure to delight some of his lady fans), but let’s also credit him for giving the best performance of his career thus far. This is something Cronenberg has been doing for decades (Jeremy Irons even thanked Cronenberg when accepting an Oscar for another movie) and Mortensen joins the club. What a strong, beautifully realized characterization this is; this character is smarter than he appears, obviously conflicted and understands a hell of a lot more than he’s letting on and Mortensen brings all of this across so amazingly that I’m thinking he’s finally going to get an Oscar nomination here. Other cast members are also fine (Armin Muller-Stall does solid work, though I don’t really get where all this praise for him is coming from, because I’ve seen him do this kind of thing before), with Naomi Watts providing an excellent counterpart of Mortensen and a perfect representation of “good”. I haven’t mentioned Steven Knight’s screenplay and don’t want to make it seem like I’m slighting it, because it’s an excellent piece of work in its own right and is obviously a perfect compliment to Cronenberg’s direction. Credit must go, too, to all of Cronenberg’s regular contributors, D.P. Peter Suschistky; costume designer Denise Cronenberg (his sister) and especially composer Howard Shore, who comes up with yet another brilliant score that sounds quite unlike all of the other scores he’s done for Cronenberg (are Cronenberg and Shore the best director/composer team in film history? That’s a very strong possibility). No complaints here.

So once again Cronenberg proves why he’s the best there is. A new film from Cronenberg is like a new gift from movie heaven, and once again he hasn’t let us down. Thank goodness.

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