Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Going Underground: "Eastern Promises"

Eastern Promises (2007, Dir. David Cronenberg)

Sometimes, if things are closed, you just open them up.
-- Nikolai Luzhin, Eastern Promises

"Cold-blooded" might be an adjective used to describe the work of David Cronenberg, but I prefer the term "exploratory," as in exploratory surgery. He takes pleasure in dissection: carving open mundane surfaces to analyze the rot underneath, peeking beneath the veil to exult in savagery. At his strongest when he applies this approach to pulp concepts -- the gonzo snuff TV of Videodrome, the human-body-as-horror hijinks of The Fly -- he is like the disinterested coroner who nevertheless breaks into little-boy smiles now and then, as if he's remembering the time he pulled wings off insects.

Cronenberg's recent A History of Violence has been his most critically lauded film, but it also marked an impasse -- on the one hand, it was his most mainstream project to date (based on a graphic novel, no less), and yet his deliberately styled tableaus and off-kilter framing were as prevalent as ever. Here his technique butted heads against a pulp story that resisted all attempts at aesthetic uplift, leaving us with a few nifty scenes of slaughter, punctuated by acting that ranged from stiffly naturalistic (Viggo Mortenson) to hambone juicy (Ed Harris and William Hurt). Formally intriguing and ice-cold, History's ultimate point seemed to have something to do with the violence in men's souls, or something portentous like that, but what it really should have been was a down-and-dirty gangster yarn. There was plenty of viscera on the screen; what was lacking was the sweat.

Eastern Promises seems like a retread of that vision in its initial scenes: on a rainy London night, a Russian mobster stops in for a cut at the local barbershop, only to have his throat slit in excruciating detail, and a young pregnant prostitute stumbles into a drug store, blood pouring from her innards (Grand Guignol, here we come). Yet Cronenberg has something different in mind this time; after this opening salvo, he settles into a style that is more measured, more patient with setting and characters. The prostitute dies giving birth, leaving the baby and her secret journal in the care of the midwife Anna (Naomi Watts). Unable to decipher the journal, Anna ends up consulting her belligerent, old-school Russian uncle (a delightfully tetchy Jerzy Skolimowski), and when she is essentially told to let the dead lie, Anna, seized with a sense of responsibility for the infant, and burdened by the recent death of her own baby, follows a lead to the restaurant of Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Big mistake -- the affable Semyon is a major player in the Russian mob, and the prostitute belonged to his skittish son Kirill (Vincent Cassel). When Anna persists in her line of inquiry, she runs afoul of father and son, as well as their trusted chauffeur and "undertaker" Nikolai (Mortenson).

The screenplay is by Steven Knight, who mined similar territory in Dirty Pretty Things -- the innocent woman thrust into a scuzzy London underworld in which her ignorance serves as a shield, at least for a while. As we tour the Russian mobster milieu, we note points of interest: the perfect spot to dump a corpse in the Thames; the meaning of criminal tattoos and their placement on the body; the value of classic Russian motorbikes and how to fix them; a scene in which a forlorn prostitute moans a folk song from the old country juxtaposed against a passage in which Semyon regales a customer with a happy tune of his own. Aided by some solid acting (Mueller-Stahl radiates menace without racing his voice above a conversational hiss, while Cassel goes into full bonkers mode), Cronenberg lets the film breathe as the complications mount. Clearly this is his most conventional work yet, but his looser, more off-the-cuff approach is a good fit for the material. Make no mistake, it gets downright ugly at times, especially when the neurotic Kirill orders Nikolai to prove his loyalty by fucking an underage girl, and as the mobsters tighten their grip on Anna and her family, we steel ourselves for the inevitable bloodbath.

It happens, but not in the way we expect. In a subtle but definite shift of focus, Anna's role is marginalized and we find our sympathies aligned with Nikolai, the low-level gangster angling for respect, caught with what seems to be a burgeoning conscience as he finds himself attracted to the stalwart Anna. As Anna, Watts can't help but be radiant, but hers is too open and sincere a character; Cronenberg instinctively gravitates towards Mortenson's Nikolai, the diffident mobster with the ready smile and the masklike countenance, someone who obviously has secrets. The same qualities that rendered Mortenson unconvincing as a gangster gone "straight" in History of Violence -- the calculation, the sense of detachment, the smidgen of gallows humor -- serve him brilliantly here. Though his performance has plenty of wry humor to it, as when he extinguishes a cigarette on his tongue with perfect comic timing, the tragedy of his character mirrors the mood of the film. Shot in muted grays and browns, Eastern Promises is a mournful picture, and Mortenson is the most mournful one of all; privy to the bad things that men do and partaking of it himself, he is constricted by caution, resigned to doing wrong and obeying the vicious thugs who are his stepping stone to better things. Or at least it seems that way -- to give away the ending would be wrong, but suffice to say that the slow-cooking tension Cronenberg builds throughout comes to a full boil when vengeful Chechnyan assassins track down Nikolai at a bath house, setting off a struggle in which a very naked Mortenson must fend off two attackers with nothing but animal fury on his side. It's a brutal smackdown that is virtuosic in its choreography and sound design, as we feel each slash of the knife as it slams into Nikolai's skin, and clench our teeth as he stabs a would-be assassin in the eye.

It would be difficult to top a sequence like that, and Cronenberg doesn't even try; in its last twenty minutes the film decelerates like a wind-up toy running out of steam. A character revelation arrives from left field, and a climax involving Kirill, Nikolai, Anna, the baby, and the Thames River ends it all on a wistful, bittersweet note. As with just about all of Cronenberg's movies, Eastern Promises concludes in a Pyrrhic victory: the forces of order are restored, and the various promises that have been made throughout the film are all kept in a fashion, but at what cost? What is most striking about the denouement is the sense that the story is still moving, with plot threads begging to be picked up, characters missing in action or on the make. Still, the last image of Mortenson alone at a dinner table, all dressed up and no place to go, seems as final as you can get, and its sadness signals something new in Cronenberg; while it may not cohere as well as some of his other works, Eastern Promises suggests that empathy and soul may not be as far out of his grasp as we might have thought.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Horse Opera: "3:10 to Yuma"

3:10 to Yuma (2007, Dir. James Mangold)

Alice Evans: Ben Wade has a gang and they're out there tonight, somewhere.

Dan Evans: If I don't go, we gotta pack up and leave. Now I'm tired, Alice. I'm tired of watching my boys go hungry. I'm tired of the way that they look at me. I'm tired of the way that you don't.

Critics didn't really know what to make of James Mangold's 1996 film Copland, aside from the fact that it was the film wherein Sly Stallone took a stab at actual "acting" [pronounced with airy English accent]. Most likely they looked at the cast list, which included Robert DeNiro, Ray Liotta and Harvey Keitel, and pegged it as a gritty film about the mean streets, and were left scratching their heads at the operatic shoot-em-up finale. Despite its glances at naturalism, Copland was essentially a Western, High Noon transplanted to the Jersey burbs, and while it didn't necessarily cohere as anything beyond a series of gestures (a drunk, self-pitying Stallone listening to Springsteen's "Stolen Car"? A bit too on-the-nose there), it had a certain gravitas to it that stuck with me after I left the theater, a sincerity in the telling.

Mangold hasn't necessarily progressed as a director since then, but he brings those same qualities to bear on the remake of 3:10 to Yuma, a true rabble-rousing Western this time, and it's now clear that Copland's spiritual predecessor wasn't High Noon but the original 1957 version of 3:10 with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin. The set-up, based on the Elmore Leonard short story, is simplicity itself: charming outlaw Ben Wade (Ford in the original, Russell Crowe here) is caught by the local authorities, who plan to haul him off to state prison on the titular train, but with Wade's gang lurking nearby and ready to take out anyone who attempts to get Wade on the train, it falls on beleaguered but upright rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale) to take responsibility, and earn some much-needed cash in the process.

The original 3:10 to Yuma was a chamber piece, as Ford and Van Heflin were mainly confined to a hotel room, the bad man heckling, taunting, and attempting to seduce the good man. It didn't pretend to be anything other than a tightly-wound potboiler of a Western, and was economic in form and style. Mangold has loftier goals in mind with this remake; it's been years since we've had the pleasure of a cracking good Western (not counting idiosyncratic treasures like Dead Man and The Proposition), and he is determined to resuscitate the genre in all its parched glory. So he cracks the story open to include more painterly vistas and hectic action setpieces, including a nighttime showdown with a trio of Injuns and a running battle down train tracks, which add the illusion of breadth if not depth. The dialogue is fearless in its adherence to the laconic conventions of the genre ("I've always liked you Byron, but even bad men love their mommas") -- it's like the word "revisionism" never existed. The score by Marco Beltrami, all eerie strings and stinging electric guitars, hearkens to Ennio Morricone circa 1969, all but daring us to consider this film among the classics that revitalized the genre.

Certainly the actors are as worthy as any that have been in a Western. Even the minor roles are filled out nicely, especially Peter Fonda as a grizzled, "ain't got time to bleed" bounty hunter, and a feral Ben Foster as Charlie, Ben's ultra-loyal second-in-command. Bale's Dan Evans is the nominal hero, but Mangold stacks the deck against him: hobbled with a false leg thanks to a Civil War shooting accident, unable to protect his ranch against the rapacious landowners who want to take it over, lacking the respect or even the sympathy of his teenage son (Logan Lerman), he might as well have a "kick me" sign nailed to his back. It's up to Bale to rescue the character from complete martyrdom with his mesmerized, entranced acting style, and he does, just barely. Too bad he's pitted against Crowe's Wade, which is akin to matching up a newborn puppy against a rottweiler. Wade is a pure Hollywood creation, a gentleman scoundrel just at home killing off one of his own gang to save his own skin as he is sketching a bird in his notebook, or quoting Scripture. Like Hannibal Lector, he is only threatening when he's threatened, erupting into violence faster than a race car accelerating to 60, and yet we're asked to believe that he has the silky magnetism to reduce Evans' steadfast wife (Gretchen Mol) to a swoon with a single line about her green eyes. Crowe recognizes the absurdity of all this and luxuriates in it, yet stops just short of sending the character up -- sly, bemused, and alert with danger, he turns in his best performance in years, a welcome change from his recent "noble and agonized" roles in Cinderella Man and Gladiator.

When the film truly gets cracking during the long windup to the final showdown, Crowe and Bale strike some very tangible sparks off each other, the former tickled and faintly puzzled by the latter's hangdog rectitude. Unfortunately it takes the bulk of the film to reach that duel of the souls, and the rest of the time we have to make do with a few solid if not spectacular shootouts, the sight of a CGI horse exploding, and a storyline crowded with incidents and characters that ultimately shortchange the conflict between the two leads. Some may take issue with the logic of Evans and Wade's climactic decision; I would argue that the early hints are there, but the film lacks the focus necessary to develop those hints so that the climax of the film comes off less enigmatic and more inevitable. While Mangold knows how to handle his actors, he could use a little work in paring a story down to its essentials.

Still, there's no denying the thrill of the film's last fifteen minutes, a non-stop gun battle that culminates in a scene of wholesale slaughter at the train depot, and reconciles Evans with his son. During the chaos we recognize what we love about Westerns -- the collision of moral imperatives and straightforward action, crises of loyalty and justice boiled down to face-offs with six-shooters. The final scene's sinewy energy nearly compensates for the hour and a half of muffled plotting that got us to this point, even as Crowe deflates any pomposity with a final jaunty whistle to his trusty steed. It's clear that Mangold loves the Western, and as a genre project, everything about the new 3:10 to Yuma reeks class. In the end, though, the word "project" might be far too apt; the film is a slavish re-creation, handsome yet distant, like thunder passing by a few counties away.