Friday, 30 November 2007

eastern promises (dir. cronenberg)

The film opens with a scene of dramatic violence. A barber tries to convince his son to cut his customer's throat. The son doesn't want to. The barber does it. The director shows the blood emanating from the great tear in the throat. The victim convulses and the audience flinches.

Cronenberg opens his movie with a scene of high drama. By the end, the drama has been extinguished. A child plays with its adopted family. A man sits in the restaurant he now controls. Their stories are far from over, but the film is moving on, and the credits roll.

This contrast between the implied dramatic weight of the film and the actual dramatic weight is curious. It could be interpreted as the director running out of steam, editing together a short cut ending because he wasn't sure how to finish it. However, the pace and the tone feel in keeping with the rest of the film, so it may be something else.

Increasingly, Cronenberg's films come to feel like fables. He has lost interest, if he ever had it, in the mechanics of plot. He creates characters who have a timlessness, belonging to timeless societies. The villains who arrive at the beginning of History of Violence could be from any stage of US history. They arrive like something out of a Western. The Russians from Eastern Promises belong to a secret criminal society that has a mythical, preternatural aura.

Cronenberg doesn't seem interested in the details of the drug smuggling the criminals are involved with. The revelation that Mortensen's character, Nikolai, is an undercover cop, seems incidental. He doesn't even seem interested in the brewing love affair between Mortensen and the fragrant Naomi Watts. What seems to fascinate him nowadays is the notion of how close the forces of anti-sociality, the secret codes of violence, are to our own society. How they are closer than we think, and when they arrive, they have no connection with the world as we see it, and their destructive power is incalculable.

Eastern Promises consciously pulls its punches. The audience knows this because we know how hard it can punch. The scenes of violence establish this - the throat cutting and the bath-house bloodbath. But just as we're anticipating the mother of all finales - it doesn't happen. The child survives and Naomi Watts sits in the garden wearing a pretty dress. Nickolai's takeover of his wing of the Russian mafia is painless, his mentor, Semyon, simply vanishes. It's like the Godfather with the ruthlessness implied but not demonstrated.

Cronenberg's movies no longer have the snap, crackle and pop of his earlier frightners. They are meditative works, where the violence has become a part of the scenery, rather than a means to a dramatic end. London is a grey, damp world in his movie, a land of no promise, and the forces of darkness are lurking, just around the corner.

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