Haunting Low Wattage Glows in Dank London Night, 24 September 2007
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA
An emotionally distraught London midwife (Naomi Watts) finds a mysterious diary on the body of a Russian teenage girl who died in childbirth and slowly sinks deeper into the grimy underbelly of London and uncovers a Russian mob where a lowly driver (Viggo Mortensen) is about to make a stunning play for power. Luckily for the audience, “Eastern Promises” is more in tune with screenwriter Steven Knight’s most recent film (the superb “Dirty Pretty Things”) than it is with director David Cronenberg’s previous endeavor (the criminally overrated “A History of Violence”).
Cronenberg has been honing a disturbingly minimalist directorial style in the later half of his career. It was so low-key the last time around, he actually managed to become the first person to un-direct a film with “A History of Violence.” My theory of un-direction stems from when a director films a piece of work in so minimalist a style, it actually negates any reason for the film to exist. Shockingly, this minimalist technique is put to some good use in “Eastern Promises” as it allows for the emergence of other far superior elements: the elegantly dark and gritty blue-gray cinematography of Peter Suschitzky, the evocative Russian-influenced score from Oscar-winning composer Howard Shore, the crafty and tightly focused screenplay from Knight, and most importantly, the amazing performances from the entire cast.
In the lead role of Nikolai, Viggo Mortensen, in tattoos from head to toe, adds new meaning to the idea of an actor throwing himself completely into a “physical role.” He delivers a raw, tense performance that is arguably the greatest of his career.
As Anna, Naomi Watts serves as the heart and soul of the film, giving the audience someone to relate to and root for as the plot grows increasingly dark and grim. Watts has been unfairly dismissed by some as an overly emotive post-modern “scream-queen” due to her roles in films like “Mulholland Drive,” “The Ring,” and “King Kong.” As she has matured as an actress, Watts has grown more subtle and nuanced in her method, and her performance here is richly textured and deeply rewarding as it emerges on the heels of her revelatory work in “The Painted Veil.” She’s the dim glow of hope in this stinking London underworld, and her character haunts the scenes of grotesque violence and criminal power plays that occur when she is off screen.
“Eastern Promises” also deserves credit for the tension it builds as the story unfolds. Cronenberg succumbs to his sadistic natural tendencies at clearly defined intervals throughout the film where shocking spurts of gore and violence rip through the minimalist style like a knife through the heart. This rising and sinking tension culminates in a Turkish sauna knife fight that is the violently dramatic flip-side of the comedic nude wrestling hotel scene in last year’s “Borat.” Like that scene, it exists only to shock, and it will have people buzzing.
Despite the inherent flaws of Cronenberg’s style which always seems to leave a bad taste in your mouth, “Eastern Promises” has just the right amount of star-power, classy production values, and shocking plot twists to be considered one of the best thrillers of 2007.
Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database
What exactly are the director’s flaws? I somehow missed what precisely you disliked about his minimalism or “un-directing,” as it were. I think his pacing is a little different from what we are used to in this day and age, in terms of performances, editing, narrative shifts, etc. Sometimes a little slow. But “un-directing” I couldn’t disagree with more. The scene where the character Semeyon first meets Anna at his restraurant and crosses over to his two daughters and plays the violin bares the stamp of Cronenberg’s stylistic genius. You get to sit there and feel something awfully subtle but effectively menacing in everything about the scene – the performance, the setting, the look and demeanor of the actors, the spindly performance on the violin by someone you already know, almost intrinsically, is evil. That is magic, when sound and vision can produce that synapse in your head. Cronenberg isn’t just minimalist – he is evocative. He cuts away anything that clouds those ancient themes which human beings understand even in this mordern culture inherently. His work reflects that. And while I agree with you on every other point in your review, I really do think the assertion that Cronenberg’s style leaves a bad taste in your mouth because of its stream-lined aesthetic misses the point. His films are ultra-realities, where the effects – and not merely the causes of violence or emotion – are presented to the audience on a finer-scale than reality. To achieve this, you have to make as many detail-oriented decisions as possible. It takes a real director to achieve that.
Kyle, my theory of “un-directing” stems from Cronenberg’s work on A History of Violence, not Eastern Promises. His style is a paradox as it is both minimalist and minutely detailed, and he took the style so deep with A History of Violence that I feel it had the reverse effect of what he may have intended. He so over-directed the film in his minimalist style that it negated any reason for A History of Violence to exist. That is what I mean by “un-directing.” It’s a misnomer.
However, his minimalist style is evocative in Eastern Promises because it perfectly accentuates all of the other wonderful and intricately layered aspects of the film and works in many of the ways you further describe. As for his style leaving a bad taste in the mouth, well, that is simply a matter of taste. I think he often goes “too far” in what he decides to show, and often he seems to only want to shock the audience. Some would call that provocative; others would call that over-the-top, which is rather ironic considering how minimalist he inherently is. Your “ultra-reality” assertion is interesting, as I think that is probably Cronenberg’s intention, but when reality in its pure form is often so off-putting, wouldn’t an “ultra-reality” be even more grotesque and ultimately unnecessary? –DHS
Well said. I think the mechanism of art is to embellish a detail of real life, to allow one theme or image or action to resonate louder than all other elements. It’s a line delivered by Kevin Spacey in “Seven”: “If you want people to listen to you, you can’t just tap them on the shoulder; you have to hit them with a sledge-hammer.”
But I accept that it is purely a matter of taste, and acknowledge that I misread you earlier.
Needless to say, I believe strongly that Cronengerg leaves an indelible mark, sensational or not. It’s not just shock – its uncanny Cronenberg shock. If a person grows up with films like “Videodrome” “Dead Ringers” or “Crash” – he’ll have a certain amount of context for films like “A History of Violence” or “Spider.” Self-indulfgent? Yes. But he doesn’t fail to do that one basic thing requisite of all directors. He entertains you with a combination of imagery and sound that sticks. The real debate regarding any given Cronenberg film has typically been an intellectual one. In this MTV age, that is invaluable to cinema. No one can say quite the same for filmmakers like McG.
Thanks for your response, BTW.
Kyle, no, thank you for this very interesting discussion. –DHS