Two years ago I found myself on the outside looking in on a chorus of praise for A History of Violence, David Cronenberg’s big genre statement on the legacy of American brutality. Time hasn’t allowed me to shake the problems I had with this overrated film and, if anything, a growing familiarity with the director’s work has confirmed my fear: that these days Cronenberg doesn’t mind letting his audience off the hook. Had Violence been the subversive film many saw (or, at least, wished they saw), the revelation of Viggo Mortensen’s true identity would have coincided with, at the very least, ambiguously justifiable carnage and not the flawlessly executed, perfectly defensible heroics on display. Violence doesn’t struggle with violence, it kowtows to the macho myth it intends to debunk, with only undeveloped gray areas to help it avoid total cowardice.
All of which is to say that where once Cronenberg created veritably uncomfortable movie experiences ranging from exploitation horror (Shivers) to nightmarish sci-fi (Videodrome) to ludicrous perversion (Crash), he now seems entirely at home indulging viewer comfort. Since many of the encomiums doled out to Violence bordered on the delusional, it’ll be interesting to read the contorted excuses given on behalf of Eastern Promises, an extension of Violence not in aim — it makes no attempt to expose a hypocritical social, cultural, or familial framework — but in tone, in its bathos that pretends the tragic dimensions of Serious Drama. Blame can be placed on a formulaic script by lone screenwriter Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Amazing Grace), whose talent clearly lies in edifying topicality. Here the topic is the London-based Russian mafia and the prostitution ring under its control, and so Knight fills the story with enough narrated excerpts from a dead adolescent prostitute’s diary to satisfy several TV Movies of the Week.
Cronenberg, our foremost cinematic physiologist, isn’t suited for this lugubrious material. Occasionally, when Knight uncovers the usual intrigue of organized crime — the particulars of the family code, ethnic solidarity and betrayal, filial angst — Cronenberg finds his footing. His direction of actors, especially Mortensen as a stoic mafia chauffeur/hitman, is superb, and it’s entrancing just watching him pace a tense conversation among Mortensen, inept and possibly homosexual Vincent Cassel and Cassel’s demanding father, overlord Armin Mueller-Stahl. Cronenberg’s attention to the tactile is unparalleled, as demonstrated by his choreography of a Russian-bathhouse fight sequence, and by the relish with which he lingers over the metaphoric significance of the tattoos that tell a crook’s life story. But these positives can’t make up for a film that wastes Naomi Watts as a daughter of Russian immigrants and climaxes with a baby-in-peril scene. They also don’t excuse Cronenberg for once again choosing a project that swerves around moral conundrums — a twist at Eastern Promises’ end conveniently allows hero Mortesnsen, who takes down the Machiavellian Mueller-Stahl, to emerge untarnished from the sordid underworld in which he’s participated. It was once cliché to say Cronenberg’s films got under your skin; now with maudlin gangster operas like Eastern Promises he’s barely breaking it.
Opens September 14