Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts in David Cronenberg’s brilliant Eastern Promises (IMDb photo still)
When I want to entertain myself, I’m more likely to put on a movie than pick up a book. If that makes me lazy and passive, so be it. But I’m not sure it does. To appreciate a movie, to really taste and assimilate it, is both an intellectual and emotional challenge. I guess you could say I’ve been doing a lot of work as a film scholar during my own extended lay-in, my own private COVID-19 quarantine.
I’m still working at Walmart, but I came down with a bad allergic reaction or a cold; I don’t want to think about anything bigger it might be. So that added a day off to a week when I normally have three days off. I’ve been filling my time writing, reading, and watching my big screen TV. I have been burning through the offerings of Neflix, Amazon Prime, and Starz, as well as my own DVDs, at a rate that would make Martin Scorsese proud.
I just got done re-screening and studying three great films by Canadian director David Cronenberg.
Cronenberg began in the field by making low-budget horror movies before expanding into the role of auteur. I once heard a critic on NPR say this man makes better movies when he’s committing himself to genre fictions than when he’s trying to be all arty and “important.” Thus were Naked Lunch and that one about Freud relative failures, while his movies that aren’t trying to be “literary” but are shamelessly derivative, traveling (and widening) the grooves of existing commercial categories, stand out as classics bigger and more graceful than the sum of their parts.
The Fly (1986), a reworking of an old Vincent Price movie, is, next to the hippie sentimentalism of The Big Chill, the best acting ever done by Jeff Goldblum. The exacting enunciation and hand gestures work well to depict a man ahead of his time and scientific community, a twitchy genius who, in a moment of drunken oversight, brings upon himself a hideous genetic union with a housefly. It would be funny if it weren’t so viscerally shocking and compelling. One watches through webbed fingers the progressive steps of this horrific transformation, each stage more sickening and gut-wrenching than the last. Yet the culmination is disarmingly elegiac. Geena Davis, as the journalist who cannot tear herself away from the mutated subject cum romantic partner, answers Seth Brundle’s plea to help him end his waking nightmare. As we watch her final grief and the fade to credits, we know we have been through something more than a schlocky joke. The horror is circumscribed by a love story. The meme, “Be afraid. Be very afraid,” came from here.
In the other two Cronenberg pictures I want to discuss, we have his go-to guy, cleft-chinned Viggo Mortensen, one of the Australian talents (both actors and directors) who’ve flooded Hollywood in the past several decades. Viggo is Cronenberg’s De Niro.
In A History of Violence (2005), inspired by a graphic novel, Mortensen plays a family man, a good man, who runs a small-town diner in what we might describe as a “bucolic” Indiana town. In a nail-biter of a scene, he reveals a part of himself nobody around him knew he had when he turns the tables on two repugnant criminals intending to rob the diner and perhaps sexually assault a female employee. After killing the two thugs (in a deliciously grisly explosion of action), Tom Stall is a hero. He gives the prototypical self-effacing speech to local and then national media. But the exposure has located him in the eyes of big-time Philly mafia who think they know him and want to hold him to account for actions in a past they insist is his. The tension between beloved, quiet-spoken Tom Stall and this Richie Cusack character imputed to him by Ed Harris’s not entirely unsympathetic mob lieutenant makes for riveting viewing. It leads to another moment of unwonted death-dealing by our humble protagonist, and eventually to a square-off between Mortensen and William Hurt as long-lost brothers. The movie is a referendum on rule by violence in our world, but in the end the imperative to kill seems at one with the yearning and the need for domestic bliss.
In Eastern Promises (2007), Mortensen plays Nikolai, a driver and muscle guy for the Russian mob in London. This one unravels not only an individual life – that of a sadly misled Russian girl who, on promises of being an entertainer, moved to London where she became a sex slave shot up with heroin – but the criminal world of post-Soviet Russian emigres. Naomi Watts excels as a hospital midwife, Anna, who takes it upon herself to dig up the story behind the 14-year-old hooker who died giving birth to a product of rape, as divulged in a diary Anna managed to have translated. Mortensen, while doing the bidding of a kindly-seeming don of the organization (who runs a Russian restaurant) and playing pals to the don’s debauched son, straddles an ethical divide. Though operating under the rule of Semyon (faux avuncular Armin Mueller-Stahl), Nikolai behaves sympathetically toward the ever more frenzied and impassioned Anna, who’s grown fond of the orphaned infant still in her charge at the ward. A fight scene with knives in a steam bath sets a new standard for hyper-realism in fight scenes. With his crested hair and Russian accent and acting courage, Viggo Mortensen creates a world you can’t look away from. The plot twist around which everything revolves underscores the theme of the compassionate heart that impels the player to live, and survive, in a remorseless world.
Cronenberg would deny there’s a moral engine at work in any of these films, but I discern in all three a core sweetness without which they might be unpalatable. He takes us to far-fetched places, using extremes to make a painting about horror, death, and violence. But even as he immerses us in these gruesome worlds, he allows us to come away remembering how it is we manage to stagger on, driven as we are by the enduring mystery of love.