Tattoo you

Writer-director David Cronenberg, one of the world’s most original filmmakers, started out in horror — and stuck with that genre for some considerable time. He’s credited with practically inventing the subgenre called ‘body horror”. His 1977 movie Rabid, for instance, deals with a woman who, as a result of experimental plastic surgery, grows a fleshy appendage out of her armpit — one with an insatiable appetite.

What’s interesting and innovative about this kind of horror movie is that the murderous monster is not externalised as some outside force, like a Freddie Krueger or a Creature from the Black Lagoon, but rather emerges from within our very bodies.

Cronenberg later made more subtle and diverse kinds of horror-dramas, where the psychological and the physical merge to deepen the horror. Take Dead Ringers, which is about two gynaecologists who happen to be identical twin brothers and are interested in the same woman, and one of whom sculpts his own rather horrifying gynaecological instruments.

When Cronenberg started moving beyond the horror genre he retained his unique focus on the body and its dangers. eXistenZ is technically a science-fiction movie, though not of the space-opera type. It’s more like what used to be called cyberpunk, and it’s about people engaged in potentially dangerous virtual-reality games. This might lead one to think the movie is about disembodiment, or a displacement into the non-physical world of computerised imagination. But Cronenberg’s realisation of this world includes a special lubricated portal at the base of the spine into which the necessary cables are plugged. In that image alone, with its creepily sexual overtones, Cronenberg makes sure that even in the space of virtual reality he insists on the body we can never escape.

Recently Cronenberg has branched out even further from his horror roots, though they continue to inform and enrich his vision. His Naked Lunch was a refreshing hallucination on the site of William Burroughs’s famously unfilmable text (and complicated life); Spider was a very quiet, interior kind of scary movie in which the wall- paper alone did more work than all the squishy effects in other Cronenberg films.

And then, to surprise his fans even more, a few years ago Cronenberg developed a healthy creative relationship with Viggo Mortensen (hot off the Lord of the Rings trilogy) and kind of ‘went mainstream”. Kind of. Together they made the brilliant A History of Violence, a riveting thriller with enough meat and depth to qualify as a serious drama too. And now we have its companion piece, Eastern Promises. This also stars Mortensen, and it also has something to do with gangsters. (The correspondence is serendipitous, though: Cronenberg has said it wasn’t planned that way, it was simply a matter of which project got what money when.)

Eastern Promises is set in London, where a hospital nurse (Naomi Watts) is left holding the baby when an abused young Russian woman dies in childbirth. In her quest to find the dead girl’s relatives, or someone who can take responsibility for the baby, she stumbles upon an underworld of Russian gangsters. At a certain point, the perspective (or what you might call the focal consciousness of the movie) shifts from that of the nurse to that of a Russian driver and gang member, Nikolai (Mortensen), and we move deeper into the secret world of the gangsters.

Mortensen is simply stunning in the role, as good as he was in A History of Violence, which is saying something. He is totally convincing, from the accent to the tattoos. And he’s up against some sterling acting talent too — Armin Mueller-Stahl and Vincent Cassel, particularly, as his fellow Russians. As we move further into this shady universe, so carefully and beautifully limned by Cronenberg, the film becomes more violent, and the violence is correspondingly more nerve-racking because it is located in a fully realised world of real people. This is no skop, skiet en donner that numbs you within the first few minutes.

The scene in which Nikolai battles a pair of killers in a sauna seems to be on its way to becoming rather famous — and not just because Mortensen is naked throughout. It’s a truly scary scene, with an impact way beyond its length, and feels all too horrifyingly realistic. As in some horror movies, one wants to close one’s eyes. But the fact that Nikolai is naked is doing some dramatic work, too, because he’s all the more vulnerable; he’s not just unarmed but unclothed. And his body has a central importance in the film. It is a living record of his history in the gang hierarchy: like a yakuza, his progress through the underworld has been marked on his very skin in an arrangement of tattoos.

This is the kind of thing that makes Eastern Promises so powerful as a movie. We feel it as if on our flesh. It has the thriller aspects familiar from the usual gangster film, though in this case they are wedded to the pervasive sense of unease that Cronenberg is able to create and increase as it proceeds. It’s a horror movie of a kind, though here the horror is evident in the ordinary world — and is perhaps even more frightening for that.

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Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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