Sunday, September 16, 2007

Eastern Promises

The dialogue's unconvincing, the plot's full of ludicrous contrivances and the lead character (the midwife played by Naomi Watts) is almost completely superfluous. And yet, David Cronenberg's new film, Eastern Promises, a thriller set among the brutal underworld of the Russian mafia in London, achieves a kind of greatness. Perhaps a question of strong direction overcoming a mediocre screenplay, the film's greatness is everywhere manifest, yet somewhat difficult to define. Its essence lies not in the performances (although Viggo Mortensen and Vincent Cassell turn in memorable characterizations) nor in the film's sure pacing (and Cronenberg keeps the picture moving along at a decisive clip), but precisely in the film's treatment of violence, or rather its entire attitude towards the very notion of screen violence, a concept of which the film offers a simultaneous elevation and deconstruction, resulting in a remarkably satisfying proposition that subsumes any contradictions into a thrilling, unified conception.

In the majority of contemporary movies, violence plays a comforting role. Having lost much of its power to shock, the uses of screen violence have had to be radically altered and filmmakers have attempted to compensate for their diminished power through a relentless ubiquity of usage. Watching a picture like The Departed (to pick a celebrated example of the contemporary crime film), we easily become not merely inured to the violence, which after all is quite continuous (and often quite gruesome), but strangely comforted. The fear of death, the fear of bodily harm that the viewer potentially feels are easily deflected when the means of bringing about these conditions are presented in such aesthetically bland, and yet such unremitting, fashion that we feel we no longer have to fear such a dull and powerless threat. At the same time, we give into it entirely, as if in a trance. Everything about the violence in Eastern Promises, which is sporadic rather than continuous (although the potential is always present), is designed to negate this easy comfort level surrounding the depiction of screen violence and return it to its prior immediacy while simultaneously calling into question the very propriety of such stimuli which, under Cronenberg's analysis, come to take on a questionable necessity.

The film's centerpiece, a scene in which a nude Viggo Mortensen kills two suited mobsters sent to rub him out in a Russian bathhouse, does much of the work in articulating this dual approach towards screen violence. The very fact of Mortensen's nudity immediately upsets the audience's comfort level. The fact that a man is so wholly and matter-of-factly naked may register as somewhat of a shock in itself (especially given the penchant of many films to allow only for female nudity - and always partial at that), but to see him engage in brutal hand-to-hand combat in such a state marks the sequence as so unsettling that the audience is completely disorientated and is forced to reevaluate its reaction to on-screen violence since the usual guideposts that ease them into complacency are almost entirely absent. The fight itself, so thrilling where such sequences are generally so bland, is expertly staged and stands as a worthy bookend to a similarly bracing scene in the director's previous film, A History of Violence, in which Mortensen kills two would-be assailants at a middle-American coffee shop. How Cronenberg achieves such startling, visceral violence is not immediately clear, but it seems to be part skillful choreography, part well-timed cutting and partly a generous dose of gore. Either way, the film's sudden elevation of violence after a first act in which it is largely absent from the screen (though frequently implied) restores the immediacy of the killing act after so many insipid, falsely comforting depictions of the same actions in a score of wholly dispensable films.

But Cronenberg is not finished yet. After Mortensen has seemingly dispensed with his attackers, he starts making his way haltingly out of the bathouse (he has been stabbed twice in the encounter), but trips over one of the mobsters on the way. The mobster, still alive, attempts to stab Mortensen a third time, but Mortensen quickly disarms him and stabs him in the eye. As Cronenberg cuts to a close-up of the stabbing, the tone of the scene switches from rousing seriousness to comic absurdity. The sheer exaggeration of the gruesome evisceration of the eye (recalling two equally gory throat slits earlier in the film) deconstructs the concept of screen violence by taking its depiction to new levels of grotesquerie, a reductio ad absurdum of the very notion of the violent showdown. It is telling that these scenes resulted in a rousing dose of audience laughter, since that seems the most obvious response in the face of the absurd. And yet, Cronenberg implicates the audience in the violent act by manipulating its response to such barbarity, a manipulation that results in the seemingly inappropriate act of laughing. The audience is forced to step back and evaluate its ostensibly incongruous reaction to the act of brutality being committed on-screen. Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill diptych attempted a similarly exaggerated grotesquerie of violence (c.f. the crushing underfoot of Darryl Hannah's eyeball), but was content to play its savagery for unreflective mirth. Cronenberg forces viewers (as he did in A History of Violence) to meditate on the very nature of screen violence, calling its appositeness into question by taking it to absurdly exaggerated levels. This dual conception of screen violence that Cronenberg presents, this simultaneous elevation and deconstruction, both of which serve to distance the viewer from the comforting non-questioning presence it normally assumes in mainstream film (and Stephen Knight's screenplay would seem to mark Eastern Promises as exactly that) is ultimately what accounts for much of the film's greatness and marks it as one of the more arresting screen efforts to emerge so far this year.

1 comment:

Allison said...

I can respect a film that deconstructs screen violence. I wish I had the stomach to watch it but he'd be preaching to the choir in my case.

Shame I'll miss Viggo, too.