Saturday, September 11, 2010
[Jake Cole is the prolific author of Not Just Movies, a site which I predict will become one of the must-read film blogs in the near future.]
David Cronenberg's movies, to boil them down to their simplest essence, are about identity. In his old body horror masterpieces, The Fly and Videodrome, the Canadian director deconstructed identity via physical dissolution, stripping away literal flesh to show mental breakdowns. Dead Ringers, with its conjoined twins unsure how to operate once separated from each other, visualized a split personality in a manner that even Brian De Palma couldn't have dreamed up when he tread similar waters with Sisters. So fascinated is he by the nature of identity that a director then known for gross-out horror could be the perfect choice to direct an adaptation of M. Butterfly, a play about bent gender, sexual confusion, and national and ethnic clashes.
In Eastern Promises, the protagonist literally wears his identity on his sleeve, and his arms, chest, back and legs. So covered is he in tattoos that, when the film arrives to its most infamous scene, one wonders if Cronenberg shot it to show, yes, there are some areas this man has not inked. Nikolai's (Viggo Mortensen) tattoos are tribal, in a sense, coded engravings that signal to other members of the Russian mob his achievements and feats of loyalty. These primitive scrawls—more than Mortensen's imposing presence, strong jawline, and impenetrable sunglasses—make him intimidating and unique in the London setting. Both Videodrome and Crash posited modernity and a too-rapid technological advancement for the loss of sanity and self-awareness, but the somber, precise photography of London suggests something else. Here, Cronenberg suggests that the growth of civilization does not force people into erratic evolutionary patterns that strip them of their base of understanding and awareness; instead, civilization simply grows and leaves some humans crushed under progress. Nikolai, with his hulking, Cro-Magnon mass and his tribal tattoos, might be a descendant of a line of people who never could catch up to the change around them.
London, after all, is arguably the most architecturally diverse city in the world. The various fires that ruined sectors of the city while leaving others unscathed have created a patchwork of styles through the various artistic movements. The city cannot seem to catch up with itself, so the prospect of some of its residents failing to adapt to the 21st century does not seem so far-fetched. That Nikolai and the mobsters he chauffeurs are Russian plays upon another aspect of London life that splinters a single identity into multiple fragments: the ethnic diversity brought on by heavy immigration.
The first scene of the film, in fact, features characters of two nationalities, neither of them native British. A Turkish man, Azim, waits for his nephew to arrive as he chats up a Chechen man. When the boy arrives, he's so shaken up and unable to look the Russian in the eyes that we know why he's there before Azim finally loses his cool urging the boy to simply kill the bastard. Overlapping Russian and Turkish dialogue, some of it subtitled, most of it not, creates a scenario that sounds as if it should be playing out in the Old Country rather than in a barber shop in the middle of a major city.
Cronenberg then jumps from this scene—ending with dark, thick blood bubbling out of the jugular as the hiss of leaking breath churns the liquid—to a seemingly unrelated scene that he links to this act of violence with remarkable subtlety. A pregnant Russian immigrant, shivering from what could either be cold or withdrawal, stumbles into a pharmacy bleeding from between her legs. As Cronenberg frames the blood dripping on the floor in close-up he links the woman's viscous blood with that of the Russian mobster, yet only the woman's bleeding attracts any gasps from characters on-screen and, likely, the audience. We are conditioned to murder in film despite its immorality and horror, yet a natural injury jars and repulses us.
The woman, Tatiana, is taken to the hospital, where she dies in childbirth. The attending midwife, Anna (Naomi Watts), finds a diary on the woman written in Russian and takes it, hoping to find out Tatiana's identity to notify next of kin. Naturally, this small act of involved kindness leads only to trouble as Anna stumbles upon the London branch of the Russian Mafia, the Vory v Zakone ("Thieves-in-Law"), fronted by a deceptively kind old man named Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Anna manages to get inside Semyon's house based on her half-Russian heritage and unknowingly tells the man who raped and impregnated Tatiana about the baby and the diary, instantly placing her on a hit list. When he learns of Anna's naïveté, her uncle, Stepan, cannot contain himself. A first-generation immigrant, he remembers the mob, and even if he mentions a past in the KGB as a drunken bluff, he knows what will come of Anna's snooping.
The tendrils of Russian influence on Anna are at once the driving motivation of the film and a thematic subplot, a microcosmic unfurling of the same forces at work on Nikolai. Where Cronenberg revealed the secret identity of Tom Stall by the end of the first act in A History of Violence, here he withholds the twist of Nikolai being an undercover agent until the end. One could argue that this is the film's chief flaw, as the twist is not so shocking that it deserves placement as a major spoiler and prevents a deeper examination of the identity issues surrounding an undercover cop in a crime ring. Yet this change allows Mortensen to add greater nuance to his acting, resulting in his greatest performance. We spend much of the film watching a man struggle with himself until Cronenberg finally provides the key, even if his easy solution raises many more questions that could have been fleshed out across the entire running time. Nikolai can go from dispassionate violence to a moment of quiet compassion when he secretly gives a prostitute the means to save her life.
By saving the truth of the character until the end, the director doesn't keep the audience guessing so much as the protagonist. From this point of view, Cronenberg's pacing proves how far gone Nikolai is within the mafia. "I'm just the driver," he says throughout the film when confronted with big problems. Rather than hide away and remind himself who he really is, his tether to reality—or his view of it—is one facet of his fabricated identity. And even that isn't really accurate as he's also a "cleaner" and an undertaker, disposing of any loose ends and winning the admiration of Semyon, who comes to view Nikolai as more of a son than his own progeny, Kirill (Vincent Cassel).
Nothing warps Nikolai's identity like his relationship with Kirill. At first, Kirill's reckless intemperance and emotional instability place another job on the "driver's" shoulders, that of a babysitter. They work as comrades, but also share a brotherly bond. Yet Kirill looks up to Nikolai so much and receives so much more support and tolerance from his peer than his dad that he comes to view Nikolai as a father figure as well. Cassel excels at playing characters on the edge, either of political rebellion (La Haine) or unquenchable hatred and vengeance (Irreversible), and his tyrannical rage finds its perfect outlet in the mob. Like Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas, Kirill dispenses with any glamorous notions of mob life by depicting pure, unchecked insanity. And Kirill doesn't even have the dangerous wit that let Tommy get away with some of his behavior. Watching Kirill vacillate between smug arrogance and unfiltered, sociopathic violence goes a long way toward explaining why Semyon holds Nikolai in such high regard: by keeping an eye on the boy, he has the hardest job in the mafia.
Kirill also sets up a common facet of Cronenberg's theme of identity, that of sexual confusion. The experimentation grows out of their doubt, and the director's focus upon Kirill's closeted homosexuality is perhaps the most typical sexual relationship in any of his films, given that it's something we might expect from a man who grew up in a secluded boy's club that runs on masculine rituals. We learn from Tatiana's diary that he could not bring himself to rape her and instead beat the teenager to vent his sexual frustration until Semyon stepped in to "show him how it's done." Later, Nikolai reveals to Semyon that Kirill had the Chechen killed for telling people that the man was a homosexual. Most disturbingly, Kirill clearly harbors feelings for Nikolai, which would be tragic instead of unsettling if the psychopath didn't force his friend to roughly screw a prostitute in front of him—emphasizing both the father/son relationship (since Kirill already watched his real father rape a prostitute) and the sexual longing he feels for Nikolai that he expels by projecting himself onto the prostitute. Kirill wants to be inside Nikolai, and Nikolai is later tricked into posing as Kirill when the Chechen mob comes to London seeking revenge for Soyka's murder—thus literalizing Kirill's desire to be with (and simply be) his friend.
That continuous layering of identity creates a situation where, as in Videodrome and Naked Lunch, reality and illusion blur. Nikolai does not seem to have a real identity, only a memory of his mission with the mob. He leaves spaces above his heart and on his knees without tattoos not because he wishes to retain something of himself but because he's leaving them blank to be filled by the final markings of the Vory signifying that he's a made man. "Sentimental value," he says when Anna refuses to sell him her motorcycle because it belonged to her father, "I've heard of that." It's a humorous one-liner you might expect from a criminal, but it signifies what Nikolai has sacrificed for his job. To have something of sentimental value, one must have some part of a personality that remains constant, and Nikolai has warped and fabricated so much that he cannot carry any objects with an emotional and nostalgic resonance.
The "cop gets in too deep" plot is so overused that Michael Mann has made an entire career investigating it from multiple angles. Yet the storyline persists because the question remains: if the breaking of laws can be forgiven, if innocent people can be hurt or even killed to maintain an identity, what then is the meaning of justice and legality? If, like all deep undercover agents, Nikolai is permitted to break the law in order to maintain his cover, at what point does he cease to become a law enforcement official spying on a cabal and instead morphs into one of the mob trying to buy his clemency through information?
Cronenberg places his own stamp on the material with his minimalistic aesthetic. Building off of the stripped-down Americana of A History of Violence, the director makes Eastern Promises into a film that's both startlingly realistic and ambiguous and suggestive. His mise-en-scène is separated from the action, above it but not looking down upon the action in condescension. While his earlier films suggested morality through Grand Guignol horror-satire, Cronenberg now glides over the action like a surgeon recording an autopsy. His lighting is cold and clinical, the objects in the frame dense but never cluttered, each item standing distinct as if everything is somehow polarized to push all other objects away.
His style is most plainly seen, of course, in his violence. Cronenberg sexualizes and fetishizes the violence in his films, yet he does not eroticize it, precisely because he never eroticizes the actual sex in his movies, instead making them outpourings of despair. Consider the scene of Nikolai having sex with the prostitute in front of Kirill; if Kirill lasciviously watching did not already sap the erotic element out of the moment, the director's decision to lay audio of Tatiana reading a portion of her diary that places this action within the context of a misogynistic, rapacious cycle only makes the scene sadder. That same mood informs the violence, which is more personal than in A History of Violence as London criminals use knives instead of guns to avoid getting brought up on an easy charge where a gangster could easily have a gun permit in the States. But the knife thrusts and slits never draw the audience. Cronenberg has an ability that Tarantino, even Peckinpah, never had: he can depict extreme violence on the screen and never make you get a visceral thrill out of it. He knows just how long to focus on blood before cutting, lingering to let the sight stick in our minds but moving on before he gets a kick out of it. When Nikolai must dispose of Soyka's body, he tells Azim and Kirill, "I'm going to go his teeth and cut off fingers. You might want to leave room." The scene starts on an absurd note, with Nikolai forced to thaw the frozen corpse with a hair dryer, but when the camera stays behind just long enough to see Nikolai start to remove identifying parts of the body with the boredom of an office worker filling out reports, the comedy turns as icy as the body he snips.
The only sequence in the film in which violence is not captured with this detached style is also the one that best proves Cronenberg' mastery. I'm speaking, of course, of the bathhouse scene, where Chechens come to kill Nikolai under the belief that he is Kirill. People discuss the scene because Mortensen fights in the buff, but Cronenberg plays the scene as an explosion of the sexual tension inherent in chauvinist groups. He also uses Viggo's nakedness to turn the stomach when the thugs slice him. We're used to an actor's shirt suddenly opening up a red line appearing as he grasps the wound in pain, but Nikolai has nothing to cover up the blood flow, and he's left slick with red stuff pouring out of him. At last, the de-romanticized sex and violence converge in the last moments, when Nikolai collapses on top of the remaining attack and grunts as he thrusts a linoleum blade into the man's eye to kill him. The quick editing is not simply a means to avoid an NC-17 rating by cutting around Mortensen's penis but a wry subversion of the male gaze—not used in the static shot of Nikolai fucking the prostitute but used here as the men grapple on each other for supremacy. It's the coup de grâce of Cronenberg's understated gore, removing all thrill and confounding the energy of the attack until you're left thinking that all of this might be avoided if these men weren't conditioned to be self-hating closeted gays.
"It's obviously a psychological thing," says Soyka as he looks upon the nervous Turk unwilling to murder him, a line that serves as an ironic joke but could also be a typically British piece of understatement perhaps passed on to the Canadian director to summarize his whole career. A man comes to worship violent TV until he starts a revolution? It's obviously a psychological thing. Unfeeling people gravitate to car crashes because it exhilarates them for one half-second longer than they've ever felt excited before? It's obviously a psychological thing. What passes as a quick gag could well be seen as a fatalistic, mournful admission of powerlessness; how else can one even begin to explain what motivates the characters of Cronenberg's oeuvre without resorting to such a weak catch all? Yet Cronenberg does not box himself into the Coen brothers' despair, and if he ends Eastern Promises on as ambiguous and threatening a note as A History of Violence, at least he finally introduces the possibility of hope, evidenced by Kirill's breakthrough of humanity when he finally breaks free from his father's will by refusing to drown the old man's lovechild.
In less than two hours, Cronenberg packs Eastern Promises with self-contained arcs that add up to a sparse but dense whole. Stepan contributes to the talk of identity by decrying miscegenation, even telling Anna to her face that she miscarried her own baby because her old boyfriend was black—as if blacks and whites were biologically incompatible like two animals from different genii. That outburst is its own moment, but it also explains Anna's quest to help Tatiana's baby, not only to serve as a surrogate but find the baby's own identity. Even cast-off lines like Kirill angrily hissing, "You don't pronounce the name of my father" to Anna when she accuses Semyon of rape develop the themes of the film, briefly bringing up an old ritual that places importance on a name, the most basic form of ID. Much of Anna's presence elicits responses like this—her inquisitiveness sorting out the web of identities jumbled by the mob—and Watts has the thankless role of moving the story along. Thankfully, neither Watts nor Cronenberg can bring themselves to trap the character in so narrow a role, and Anna comes to most conclusions herself and does not simply exist to ask the plot questions. If she does not appear in the film as often as you might expect it's because Cronenberg makes her the moral core, and thus her routine absence from Nikolai's storyline shows how muddled his ethics are. He's left in charge of the London section of the mob at the end of the film, but we cannot be sure whether he will tear it down and send everyone to jail or if he'll continue to let the crimes they commit pass in order to get only the occasional arrest. That the final shot shows him sitting in a restaurant with the same insulated, self-loathing look on his face that marks Michael Corleone's at the end of The Godfather Part II only stresses the moral complexity and ambiguity of what may be David Cronenberg's barest, yet richest, masterpiece.