Horror movies are often about materialisation in a very particular sense, the grisly acting out of fears and phobias that in daily life are kept safely (if painfully and disastrously) in the mind. No director realises this more clearly than David Cronenberg. He is best known no doubt for The Fly (1986), Dead Ringers (1988) and his much vilified Crash (1996), but some of us have a soft spot, if that’s the term, for his early work The Brood (1979), a classic instance of the acting-out theory. A psychiatrist prescribes rage therapy to his patients: they are to let their anger loose and thereby find a cure for what ails them. As they get into the therapy, freely thinking of how much they hate someone, for example, a small gang of dwarves with mallets marches off and beats that someone to death. This is not a metaphor.
I thought of this film as I was watching Cronenberg’s newly released Eastern Promises, and at first I couldn’t work out why. This is not a horror movie but a slick and atmospheric thriller, a sort of cross between Goodfellas and The Godfather only set in London and with Russians as the gangsters. But then I realised that this movie too, or at least what’s best in this movie before it succumbs to sheer gore and then to terminal resolution anxiety, producing happiness and relief when it should have quit while the going was bad, is all about a violence and horror that come from somewhere else, invading the ordinary world from a zone as strange as the individual angry mind. Not Russia, I think, and not even ‘Russia’, but some place in our imagination where the secret kindnesses, family values and occasional lovable gestures of the American mob are all banished, and only a mixture of power and pathology remain.
You need a good, maybe even a great villain for this story, and the movie is lucky in having Armin Mueller-Stahl as Semyon, the head of the Russian gang. He not only gives us the jovial, twinkling Santa Claus type the script calls for, he makes us think the script must be wrong when it invites us to suspect him, as it almost immediately does. And then when he gets nasty he is so calm and lethal that we can’t even remember the Santa Claus we were so taken by. He is frightening not because he hides his ruthlessness behind a convincing niceness but because he is nice – until he needs to be ruthless. It’s true that he doesn’t speak English like a Russian, he speaks the excellent English of the German that he is. But then verisimilitude is not the thing here, and Cronenberg generally avails himself of the fine old convention by which foreigners in films speak brief phrases in their own language and rattle on in English with an accent for the rest of the time. It’s true that Vincent Cassel, as Kirill, Semyon’s psychopath son, and Viggo Mortensen, as Nikolai, Cassel’s ‘driver’, i.e. the man who gets rid of the bodies, sound a little more Russian, but it’s still a game and all about effect rather than mimesis. The bits of the Russian language and the glum, liquid accents are signs of foreignness, as Roland Barthes once said the fringes in Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar were signs of Romanness. Well, they are signs of more than foreignness. They are signs of impenetrable darkness, of minds beyond our reach: Mueller-Stahl because we don’t know what he wants, Cassel because he is mad and Mortensen because he can’t be (and isn’t, it turns out) as bleak-souled and merciless as he seems.
The movie opens with two apparently unrelated events: the execution of a Russian in a London barber’s shop and the death in childbirth at a London hospital of a 14-year-old Ukrainian girl. The execution, performed by the barber’s idiot nephew, has been ordered by Kirill; the dead girl is part of the traffic that is a small fraction of Semyon’s business. She has also been raped by Kirill and Semyon. However, her baby survives and there are clues to her past: a notebook and a business card for a Russian restaurant in Smithfield: Semyon’s place. Naomi Watts is Anna, the midwife who wants to find the child’s family. Anna can’t read Russian and so needs to have the notebook translated. Her heavy-drinking Russian uncle, played by the Polish film director Jerzy Skolimowski, refuses to touch it until too late; and Semyon, when consulted, is only too eager to help. This is how violence and horror enter Anna’s ordinary life: full of charm and weighed by threat.
And this is where we learn that these Russians in London are not only gangsters but also members of a secret society complete with tattoos, oaths and Masonic rituals that make you wonder if you have wandered into The Da Vinci Code by mistake. Kirill is pursued by another set of Russians because of the initial execution, and Semyon, ever resourceful and ever devoted to his wayward son, decides to set up Nikolai the driver in Kirill’s place. The scene takes place in a public baths. You get the idea: two men in black with short sharp knives and an intended victim with no clothes on: lots of blood and grunting; two deaths, one gouged eye; one unlikely survivor. It can’t be that Cronenberg has lost control here, since the scene is beautifully choreographed. But what does he want? Does he want us to laugh, as most people were doing in the cinema where I saw the film? Does he want nervous laughter perhaps? He wasn’t getting that. It may be that the interesting moment in such stories is always when the dwarves appear with the mallets, not when they get down to work. And here, in Eastern Promises, a remarkably gripping and disturbing film loses us (loses me anyway) at precisely the moment the set-up in the public baths becomes clear. Once the fight starts the invasion of the ordinary is over; the ordinary has been replaced by movie gothic. But then that too must be part of Cronenberg’s plan. He likes the mallets.
Similar elements were more successfully combined in Cronenberg’s previous film A History of Violence (2005), in part because the logic of the plot is itself eerie and in part because the idea of the ordinary is already overdetermined. How could a film that starts in an innocent-looking motel not be headed for horror? For that matter, how could a film set in a small American town full of nice people not be primed for invasion by something, if not body-snatchers from another planet then vengeful spirits from the Indian graveyard thoughtlessly buried beneath a suburb? Or the mob. In A History of Violence it’s the Philadelphia mob, drawn to quiet Indiana by the fact that Tom Stall, owner of a diner, has made the national news by heroically taking out two hoods trying to rob his store and rape his staff. Where did he acquire the skills and speed and courage? Is he perhaps not Tom Stall at all but someone else, a man with a history of violence? Joey Cusack, for instance, who once applied barbed wire to a gangster’s eye? The film soon shows, and Tom, played by Viggo Mortensen with a stoic persistence very similar to the doggedness required by his role in Eastern Promises, has to do a fair amount of fast and vigorous killing before he can get back to the diner and his quiet routine with the wife and kids. The dialogue itself runs constantly to a kind of cryptic surprise, as if everyone, even the criminals, let alone the peace-loving locals, thought just getting on with things was easy and to be expected. Even outside of the movies this is true only if you are extremely lucky or extremely apathetic and inside a movie it’s like praying for the plot to go away. ‘Jesus, Joey,’ William Hurt says as the Philadelphia boss about to be shot through the head by his brother. The body falls and the brother says: ‘Jesus, Richie.’ This film works so well because the ordinary world is not innocent, only marginal or small-time in its violence; only waiting to be invaded by the rabid dwarves of history itself. And because the ordinary then gets redefined: as a possible achievement, something to come home to if you can make it home.