In a filmography chock full of demented body horror, twisted tales of sexual gratification and mentally unhinged psychological thrillers, David Cronenberg’s relatively straightforward and realistic gangster movie, Eastern Promises, tends to be something of an odd man out.
Thanks to this video by visual essayist Evan Puschak, also known as The Nerd Writer, we can truly appreciate what Eastern Promises is in search of, and how this goal fits perfectly into the broader view of Cronenberg’s body of work.
Cronenberg’s early films are slick, stylish and explicitly grotesque. They deal with the body in entirely literal ways, as he uses state-of-the-art special effects to contract the human flesh past the boundaries of normality. Heads explode in Scanners, the womb is transplanted outside the body in The Brood and a man’s hand is morphed with a gun in Videodrome. In each of these films, the body breaks, snaps and twists in unusual ways—always disgusting but always meaningful. As Pushack goes on to describe, the body’s relationship with its surroundings is put to the test throughout Cronenberg’s films, much as the individual is constantly in conflict with some form of a collective. Though Cronenberg’s disturbing violence approaches levels of outrageousness, his philosophically and biologically engaged direction always demand audiences’ attention and respect.
Cronenberg consistently engages us with this uncomfortable element of body horror and never strays from these feelings of intimacy. In Naked Lunch, the viewer is infused with the sweaty humidity as much they are with the psychotropic bugs, biologically enhanced typewriters and miracle drugs. In his later works, such as Spider and A History of Violence, there is a physicality to his filmmaking that only he could produce. Not only is the violence bone-crunching and soul-crushing but there is an equally uncomfortable emphasis on the limits of the human body and how much we can tell about ourselves and our relationship to our surroundings by the way our bodies move. If bodies change due to the world around them—as they do in Videodrome and Eastern Promises—then it is essential to examine the relationship between the two entities.
Eastern Promises takes a more subtle approach to its display of the human form and its various contortions. As Puschak points out, however, from its very first scene, we are privy to three battered and vulnerable bodies that will set up the dynamics of the film. In the first sequence alone, we view a brutal, ritualistic murder by Russian mobsters, a bruised woman showing up at a London hospital with blood dipping from her legs and her newborn child just a few moments later. Two bodies torn apart and one birthed, all covered in the poetic blood that Eastern Promises basks in. From here, every plot dynamic and some of the more powerful examples of character development are told through the vessels of bodies.
Like all of Cronenberg’s films, the bodies of Eastern Promises tell stories, both literal and figurative. The most obvious example of this is in Viggo Mortensen’s character Nikolai, who has a large portion of his body covered in tattoos that tell his story and represent his status in the world of the Russian criminal underground. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Nikolai fights in the nude—allowing every inch of his body to be shown. Each mark, each inked in design and each grizzled wrinkle tells us exactly what we need to know about this character. Though Eastern Promises is quite realistic, this fascination with the ins and outs of our own skin is an attribute that the gangster film shares with the body-morphing theatrics of The Fly and the perverse sexuality of Crash. Though the elements in those films may be more intentionally off-putting than what we see in Eastern Promises, these films all fit the same purpose that Cronenberg is going for: to explore the human condition through an examination of the most physical aspects of our being.
Cronenberg’s stylish approach to moviemaking presents a very unique way to look at the human race, and an uncomfortable way to present on-screen violence. Cronenberg places us unflinchingly close to his characters, which helps bring out their emotional state amidst his disorienting and often alienating special effects. The reason that something like The Fly works so well is because Cronenberg forces us to inhabit the same claustrophobic vicinity as Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum). His camera allows the deep sadness behind Brundle’s eyes to shine through. Eastern Promises pulls a similar trick, as every act of violence is shot unflinchingly and far too close for comfort. A slitting throat is done in a medium close-up and we are forced to watch as the last glimmers of light leave the character’s eyes. This is an incredibly effective way to build character through camera work as well as an effective way to portray violence without presenting it in an exploitative manner. After all, Cronenberg is not concerned with exploiting but, rather, examining. MM