THE BACK PAGES

Think shower scene in ‘Psycho'

In Cronenberg’s new gangster movie, the big buzz is around Viggo’s naked knife fight

BRIAN D. JOHNSON September 10 2007
THE BACK PAGES

Think shower scene in ‘Psycho'

In Cronenberg’s new gangster movie, the big buzz is around Viggo’s naked knife fight

BRIAN D. JOHNSON September 10 2007

Think shower scene in ‘Psycho'

film

In Cronenberg’s new gangster movie, the big buzz is around Viggo’s naked knife fight

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

David Cronenberg seems bemused by the notion that people find Eastern Promises, his new movie about Russian gangsters, “quite violent.” He points out that there are no more than a few minutes of brutality in the entire movie. “There are literally three scenes of violence,” he says. “And the two throat-cuttings are very quick. You could include the finger-snipping, but the guy’s dead so it doesn’t really count.”

Leaving aside the question of whether trimming a corpse’s fingers with a pair of pruning shears counts, the scene in Eastern Promises that’s causing all the buzz is a bathhouse fight, in which a naked and visibly exposed Viggo Mortensen hurtles through a bout of bloody combat with two knife-wielding attackers. After an advance screening of the film, a colleague turned to me and said, “Nothing you’ve read about that scene can prepare you for it.” When I relay the comment to Cronenberg, he says, “That’s a good sign. Not that we intended it, but this is shaping up to be like the shower scene in Psycho, the scene that will get them to see the movie. It would be good if they can hear about it and still not have it spoiled for them.”

A director who forged his reputation by inventing his own genre of biological horror now appears to be reinventing the mob movie. And he’s on a roll. Eastern Promises, which opens Sept. 14, is one of the most keenly anticipated movies amid an armada of major premieres being launched at next week’s Toronto International Film Festival. It comes two years after A History of Violence (2005), which resurrected Cronenberg’s career after a long stretch of box-office oblivion (“I’m

suddenly hot again for about 10 minutes”). And once again it’s a gangster movie starring Mortensen as a soft-spoken hero with a secret life and a knack for vicious brutality.

Despite the obvious similarities, they’re very different films. Based on a graphic novel, A History of Violence plays like a western, a fable of men in black shattering the calm of a small American town. The new movie, set in a London enclave of the Russian mafia, is grounded in meticulous research and riddled with Old World intrigue. It lacks the moral and political resonance of History, which eviscerated myths of American heroism. But as a pure thriller, Eastern Promises is a stronger, more plausible drama. And for Cronenberg it marks another departure.

Remarkably, with his 18th feature, this 64year-old iconoclast is still continuing to evolve as a filmmaker, tattooing his distinctive signature onto fresh terrain. And while his work shows little sign of compromise, it has become a lot more accessible. Eastern Promises, a US$27-million Canada-U.K.-U.S. production, is the most realistic piece he has ever directed. Though laced with subversion, it’s also his most conventional. Mortensen’s Russian mobster is drop-dead cool, a tall drink of vodka with glimmers of Clint Eastwood, James Dean and James Bond. At stake is the fate of an adorable newborn baby, an odd apparition in a Cronenberg film. And the redemptive ending verges on happy—even if the director prefers to call it “bittersweet.”

Scripted by British screenwriter Steve Knight (Dirty Pretty Things), the story is about a motorbike-riding midwife named Anna (Naomi Watts), who works at a north London hospital. She gets mixed up with the Russian mafia while trying to trace the identity

of a baby born to a raped 14-year-°ld sex slave. The young mother, who dies in childbirth, has left a diary, which leads Anna to a Russian restaurant owned by an aging crime boss (Armin Mueller-Stahl). She then becomes enmeshed in a lethal intrigue involving the boss’s dissolute son (Vincent Cassel), who’s a closeted homosexual, and the son’s chauffeur/enforcer, Nikolai (Mortensen), a mysterious ex-con rising in the ranks of the vory v zakone criminal brotherhood. Aside from the eruptions of violence, this must be one of the quietest, most tender gangster films ever made. And there are at least two subtextual romances—one straight, one gay—running through it, like underground streams.

Asked how he ended up making two mob movies with Mortensen back-to-back, Cronenberg insists it was “a complete accident—there were many other films that floated by.” The only other lead actor he’s cast twice is Jeremy Irons, his star in Dead Ringers and Aí. Butterfly. In fact, given that Irons played twins in Dead Ringers, and Mortensen played the split personae of Tom/Joey in A History ofViolence, you could say Cronenberg cast both of them three times. But the director admits he has tried to reignite relationships with a number of his previous male leads, including Christopher Walken (TheDead Zone), James Woods (Videodrome), James Spader (Crash) and Ralph Fiennes (Spider). “I’ve tried to do movies with all of them—it’s not for lack of trying. You have a relationship. You’ve done all the basics. So it means you can build and start again at a higher level.”

For years, every Cronenberg movie had its own peculiar DNA. Even as he strayed from science fiction to portray gothic gynecologists in Dead Ringers and car-wreck fetishists in Crash, their worlds still seemed wholly invented. And now that he’s plying a more familiar genre, he still refuses to admit that

he’s referencing other movies, including his own. His two sequential mob movies, he insists, are unrelated. “That’s not to say that when the smoke clears we can’t see they would be an interesting double bill. But when you’re making the movie, you’re not thinking about your last movie—or anyone else’s movie.” But in making a gangster picture, how can you not reference a genre that’s so indelibly branded by Coppola, Scorsese and The Sopranos? Sure, Eastern Promises takes place in a different world—an English hothouse of Russian cutthroats, not a neighbourhood of New Jersey wise guys. But when we see Mueller-Stahl’s ruthless crime boss offering a taste of his beloved borscht or sweetly showing some children how to make a violin weep, it’s hard not to be reminded of Brando’s Godfather amid his tomato plants.

“I didn’t even think about it,” says Cronenberg. “Not that Armin isn’t Godfatherish. But all monsters are sentimental. Stalin would be like that too. It’s got its basis in reality rather than in other movies.”

In fact, Knight’s script is based on intensive research into the international sex trade. Mortensen spent weeks in Russia, immersed himself in the language, and met with Russian gangsters. There were also Russian extras on the set who claimed to be bodyguards and chauffeurs. “Yet they were wearing Armani and driving Mercedes,” says Cronenberg, “so I think we had subliminal consultation.” Mortensen, meanwhile, was more than an actor. He put a fresh spin on the script by discovering a book, Russian Criminal Tattoo, and a documentary, The Mark of Cain, about the tattooing subculture in Russian prisons. Cronenberg sent them to the screenwriter, saying, “You’re going to want to incorporate a lot of this because it’s mind-blowing.” Tattooing became a key element of the story. And, branded with this coded mutilation of the flesh, the movie became instantly more Cronenbergian. “I don’t look for these things consciously,” he says. “But if you keep your

pores open, and invite collaboration, that’s the great kind of stuff that can happen.” Famous for being far more mild-mannered than his movies, Cronenberg’s own body is tattoo-free. “In the Jewish religion, if you have tattoos, you can’t be buried on hallowed ground. As an atheist that doesn’t really matter to me. I’ve just never had the urge, although I did a photo shoot with my daughter in which I had a fake tattoo put on, taken from Russian Criminal Tattoo. And I must say, I was kind of reluctant to wash it off.”

Cronenberg is a kind of tattoo artist in his own right. His films get under the skin and don’t wash off. They also leave an indelible mark on his actors. Irons saw his career undergo an almost surgical transformation in the director’s hands, as he matured from matinee idol to serious actor. Now, using Mortensen’s ripped body as a living lab experiment, Cronenberg has re-engineered the icon of the Hollywood action hero—and filmed images of a naked, knife-fighting Viggo that will be tattooed into cyberspace. (Every actor now thinks twice about nudity, knowing that any genital shots can be captured from a DVD and uploaded to the Internet.)

The nudity was a matter of sheer pragmatism, says Cronenberg. “It took about 10 seconds to decide. We were working on the choreography and Viggo said, ‘Well, it’s obvous I’m going to have to do this naked.’ And I said, ‘Okay, great.’ And that’s it. The screenwriter didn’t consider it. It was left to us to figure all those things out. Viggo knew the style of the movie. It’s meant to be very realistic and body-conscious. Not like the Bourne movies where you get impressionistic cutting and you don’t know what’s really gone on. I wanted to show everything. The body—that’s what I make movies about. I’m shooting an actor who’s acting with his body.”

It’s hard to think of another scene of naked combat in a mainstream movie, unless you go back to that bit of gentlemanly wrestling in Women in Love (1969). So even in this,

Cronenberg’s most straightforward thriller, taboos fall. There’s a sense that his originality is forged as the camera rolls, regardless of whether he wrote the script. “Once you’re on the set,” he says, “it doesn’t matter where the script came from. You have to make two or three thousand decisions a day that are unique to you. You have to feel close enough to what you’re doing, excited enough, that you will mix your blood with it.”

The Cronenberg tattoo has left a mark on pop culture that often exceeds his reach at the box office. His viral innovations in the horror genre continue to replicate decades later. And while it may be coincidence, the final ragged scene of The Sopranos, with the family staring into the abyss across the dinner table, is reminiscent of the final scene in A History of Violence. But Cronenberg wouldn’t know. He gave up on The Sopranos long ago. “It made me crazy,” he says. “I know it’s good. I just found the characters stupid and brutal. As much as I appreciated the artistry, I couldn’t watch them.”

And don’t get him started on fellow Canadian filmmaker Paul Haggis, who swiped the title of his own inimitable Crash, winning Best Picture with an Oscar nomination most critics felt deserved to go to A History of Violence. “Now, Paul, there’s a guy who has real cred in Hollywood,” says Cronenberg. “I think they’re still a bit wary of me. Nobody’s throwing a $100-million movie at me, let’s put it that way. But if you saw the stuff I’ve turned down, things I could have made a lot of money doing, you wouldn’t worry about my integrity.”

So just what will Cronenberg say if he runs into Haggis next week at the Toronto film festival, where Haggis is premiering In the Valley ofElah? “I’ve said many things to him. He knows my attitude, that I’m very mad at him, but how long can I keep that up? I will say, ‘Hello, Paul, I’m going to call my next movie The Valley ofElah.’ ”

Then they can take it into the steam bath. M