The second film in a row in which he had no hand in its writing, David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises is also the second consecutive film in which he reminds us that, before his art rep subsumed him, he was a skilled manipulator of batshit B-movie conventions. Since the charm of his work before The Dead Zone slipped past me, I don’t have much invested in the Cronenberg mythos. Generally, the gorier the film the more moving it turns out to be (The Fly, Dead Ringers, A History of Violence), even though you shouldn’t hold me to this adage either since it doesn’t explain how dull existenZ was (Cronenberg’s Lost Highway, i.e. a movie that became an unintentional, airless parody within seconds of watching it) and the hilarity of Naked Lunch, one of the only examples since Godard’s mid-sixties run of a filmed precis — in this case of the “unadaptable” Burroughs novel on which it’s based. Droll, sad, and absurd *, Naked Lunch looks better every year, although it’s impossible to remain objective: seeing it in January ’92 in a multiplex with high school friends, surrounded by attentive bourgeois homosexuals, remains one of my seminal filmgoing experiences.
As a demonstration of Cronenberg’s tonal control and ability to make a $25 million production look like a hundred million bucks (the restaurant scenes are plush enough to evoke Tolstoy by way of Joyce’s “The Dead”), Eastern Promises surpasses A History of Violence. So does Viggo Mortensen’s performance, which should be a textbook example of how to avoid Streepisms when learning an accent. Mortensen’s become so good at settling into his physicality that it’s easy to underestimate how transparent he makes thinking in character look (that he must project thought whilst shorn and slicked like H.R. Haldeman is an unabashed triumph). Too bad the film’s underwritten: the resolution’s botched, and Naomi Watts, speaking in her real voice for the first time in years, is uninspired. Cronenberg, uncharacterically, backs away from embracing Mortensen’s potential for evil, which, the script notwithstanding, is defined not by the horrible things you do so much as the lack of deliberateness with which the person carries them out.
* “Droll, sad, and absurd” also describes Judy Davis’ performance, one of the many good ones she gave between her terrific run between 1990-1993 before Woody Allen, punishing himself for writing her greatest part in Husbands & Wives, condemned her to harridan hell in two successive films which I won’t mention here.