Both “Eastern Promises” (2007) and its companion piece “A History of Violence” (2005) are brutal dramas from director David Cronenberg who has, apparently, moved beyond the fantastic (infections, mutations, genetic accidents) and settled in a nice groove that is firmly rooted in the ultra-violent. He knows that we’re simultaneously fascinated by violence and repelled by it. He’s making movies now that supposedly show us how terrible it really is while making us look close-up and personal at the most graphic details. The key here, though, is that it’s not about abstract violence but about what one human being will do to another human being, and that makes these films character dramas. It’s a POV that works, and makes for one tough cage fight for us to judge.
Going into the theater with my friend Randal Cohen, I knew almost nothing about “Eastern Promises” except that a few other critics had liked it, that the world it explored was the Russian mob and that it starred Viggo Mortensen like the earlier “A History of Violence.” Oh, and something about a male nude scene involving Viggo that could put you off going into a sauna for the rest of your life. Directing from Steven Knight’s screenplay, Cronenberg hits the ground running (or bleeding) with an opener that involves a clumsy and graphic throat-slashing and follows it with a pregnant woman bleeding out in a drugstore, only to deposit us squarely in the middle of a Russian crime family that has now settled in London. We meet the Russian boss, Semyon (played by Armin Mueller-Stahl), who likes Nikolai (Mortensen’s role) better than his own son. Yes, this does sound like Don Corleone liking Tom Hagen better than clumsy Fredo and, yes, you could smackdown this film against “The Godfather” because there are similarities in theme and set-up. But since “The Godfather” resides firmly on almost everyone’s Best Film list, there’s not much point.
It didn’t really hit me until the morning after I saw this film, but one of the things that it does is treat the human body like it’s nothing more than a piece of meat. Whether it’s the way that the prostitutes are anything but sexy or the calm way one clips the fingers off a dead body like they were fingernails, there’s just no sentimentality to be had. Then again, why would there be? This is all about the underbelly where the lines are blurred. Good guys can be forced to do very bad things. The action here is gut-wrenching and the story messes with your mind — in a good way.
The Defending Champion
If “Eastern Promises” gives us Viggo Mortensen as a good guy who can do bad things, then “A History of Violence” gives us Viggo as a bad guy who can do good things. The screenplay, written by Josh Olson, based on the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, looks in on a married couple in a small town in Indiana. Mortensen’s Tom Stall runs a pleasant little diner that everybody in town feels comfortable with. On the subject of roots, we just know he’s running from his. Naturally, knowing the pedigree of Cronenberg, we also know that things won’t stay peaceful long. In Tom’s case, his idyllic life is shattered when a couple of worthless rapist/murderers decide they want more than coffee and he is forced to kill them. The fight that ensues is one of the best I’ve seen on film (and cameraman Peter Suschitzky needs to get some credit here) and is unexpected, thrilling and gratifying.
“A History of Violence,” however, serves up its twist early and it settles nothing. Tom becomes a local hero and soon a couple of gangsters show up accusing him of being another man, some guy named Joey Cusack, a murderer they used to work with in Philadelphia. The main baddy, Fogarty (Ed Harris) is chilling, original and somebody that really, really needs killing. This is, as we say in the writing trade, a “good problem.” There are multiple ways it could go. And, as it goes forward, there is violence, yes, but by the end of the film, you are left thinking about the whole topic in ways you hadn’t imagined you would.
Cronenberg still has a keen eye on organisms that go horribly wrong, but he’s moved beyond the altered human body to the larger social organisms of cities and towns. The experiments which have gone horribly awry in his new films are social, and it’s fascinating to watch.
One thing you have to say after watching both of these films is that Viggo Mortensen is one hell of an actor. When I first saw “A History of Violence,” I thought that his Tom Stall was the performance of his career. Now, seeing his Nikolai in “Eastern Promises,” I wonder if this is it. He’s not Russian but he so completely immerses himself in this role that you spend not one second thinking about that. He is absolutely phenomenal and convincing.
There is a feeling that “Eastern Promises” is a Russian “Godfather” film while “A History of Violence” feels fiercely original. Maybe that cuts for “Violence” a smidgen, but the truth is that “Promises” is so damn convincing in its own world that any comparison is not a defining knock.
On the level of surprise, that goes to “Eastern Promises” which packs a good one that most people in the theater I saw it in did not see coming. I suppose there’s a level of surprise in “A History of Violence,” too, but not in the same way because, well, you’ll figure it out when you see it.
Where “A History of Violence” clearly bests its competition is in the ending. In “Violence,” it’s a moment of a family tableau that literally forces you to think about the nature of violence as you leave the theater and for many days after. “Eastern Promises,” however, really loses its way in the ending. It’s not a fatal flaw, but it is a flaw.
I knew this was not going to be easy. Both of these films are so provocative and so a cut-above others that are in theaters, that it’s tempting to say, “Ah, hell, just see them both.” And, truth is, you should do that. But the question is, if you’re going to watch one, which one? For what it’s worth, my film buddy Randal probably would pick “A History of Violence” but, hey, he can write his own Smackdown. This is on me… let me think…
Okay. Here’s the way it is. David Cronenberg has proved himself to be a world-class guy with a camera, and both of these show him at the top of his game. There are great moments in both films, this is a full fifteen rounds where each guy won his share and all the ref cards are close, and when they announce the call, it’s a split decision. It’s that close. But there are a few places in “A History of Violence” where I thought the film was off like the simplistic way the media is portrayed and the not-so-smart plan Tom has to set his life in order and the way he goes about it. There’s also a sex scene that still feels weird to me a couple of years after seeing it. The later film, though, never faltered for me until it did, slightly, at the end. It’s not going to be in theaters that long but, while it is, I think you should go out and see the winner on points… “Eastern Promises.”