Anna and the Wolves, Plus the New Haggisography
By Fernando F. Croce

The straighter the blueprint, the stranger the David Cronenberg movie. David Knight's script for Eastern Promises is a thoroughly lackluster extension of the immigrant-underworld seediness he exploited in Dirty Pretty Things, but Cronenberg surveys Knight's borsht eatery of a thousand clichés and locates a signature shot, the epicene blonde minstrel presenting "Ochi chyornye" to an ancient customer before her centennial cake. The place is London, "city of whores and queers," the director makes himself at home: Blood gushes from the start, at a barber's chair and on a drugstore's floor, a dead 14-year-old Russian prostitute and her newborn side by side at the midwife Anna's (Naomi Watts) operating table. She takes home the girl's diary and asks her uncle (Polish New Waver Jerzy Skolimowski) to translate it, although the old man believes in burying people's "secrets with their bodies." Not in Cronenberg's city -- corpses are tossed in the Thames only to surface with tell-tale tattoos on their torsos and limbs, and pages of the dead girl's diary, read aloud as narration, become reminders of vanquished innocence as haunting as Elizabeth Short's screen-test-cum-porn-reel in Black Dahlia. Like De Palma's great moral document, this is a film about dark secrets and families, and the diary's notes lead to avuncular Semyon's (Armin Mueller-Stahl) luxurious Trans-Siberian restaurant, a velvety cover for a maelstrom of rot. Semyon is part of the Vory v Zakone crime world, his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) is a torpedo, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) is the family's driver and "undertaker."

Eastern Promises is another late-period Cronenberg masterpiece, grounded by a brilliant use of Mortensen's physical sturdiness and moral shadows. Impeccably suited with shades pinned to his massive square head, his Nikolai is a Siberian Alain Delon, faultlessly contained where Kirill the underworld libertine is fatally raucous. What toll comes with such coolness? "I am already dead. I died when I was 15," he says to a group of Russian capos assembled to approve the tattoos that will be engraved on his body as signs of power. The scene is one of three to evocatively put the male body on display -- before it, Kirill forces Nikolai to pick a hooker and watches as he doggies her in bed, and later on, in an astounding set-piece on the prowess and vulnerability of human flesh, a bathhouse skirmish comes to suggest all sorts of penetration. The story brings to mind the title of a forgotten Carlos Saura picture (Anna and the Wolves), and the fairy-tale element isn't lost on Cronenberg as he traces the emergence of a monstrous paterfamilias and the kidnapping of the child who threatens his kingdom. Nikolai tells us he's "in the Zone," but he's really a creature in limbo, both between crime and law (as a late twist reveals, in the film's only clunky bit) and between Anna's "normalcy" and Semyon's unsavory realm. Accepting our darkness is what makes us, wholly, human -- the hero learned that in A History of Violence, and was received back at the dinner table. Eastern Promises may have one of Cronenberg's most hopeful finales, but remember that the image we're left with is Mortensen's Nikolai alone with his unreadable demons.

*

In the Valley of Elah is also a tale of loss structured around a slaughtered innocent, and there ends any similarities with Eastern Promises. The single thing Paul Haggis has in common with Cronenberg is that they're both Canadians, although Haggis did steal the title of Cronenberg's superb 1996 vehicular Liebestod for his horrendous, Oscar-winning filibuster, Crash. The new Haggisography addresses the fallout of the Iraq war in the homeland, and, since the filmmaker has convinced himself of his role as the ultimate teller of hurtful truths, the subject gets the same cri-de-coeur piety that racism got in the earlier film. His stew goes rancid early: Tommy Lee Jones, doing red-state kabuki -- slow-spoken, granite-browed, yada yada yada -- buys something at a store, then tersely asks the clerk, "Sure it will fit?" "You've got to trust somebody sometime," the fellow answers. Like the Persian guy buying a gun and being called "Osama" (by the storekeeper!), it's an ominous early sign that Haggis is interested in message-carrying marionettes instead of people, tidy diagrams instead of the flow of life. Jones is a career Army man whose son, back from a military stint in the Middle East, has vanished from his post. The soldier is found, dismembered and dispersed all over a field; the cops spend most of their time making fun of civilian detective Charlize Theron (back in unwashed North Country drag), so Jones, who under that rocky bearing is a regular freaking Columbo, takes to the devastating mystery himself.

Scrambled video clips are the film's equivalent of the dead girl's diary pages, gradually downloaded from the murdered soldier's cell phone onto his father's laptop as a rather callous suspense ploy. Jones needs to have his Bushie eyes opened, and each new file reveals more about what actually happened in the Over There he calls a "shithole" -- painfully enlightened, he can go back to his wife (a wasted Susan Sarandon) and fly the American flag upside down, completing Haggis's reductive dissertation. If Crash was faux-Altman, In the Valley of Elah is mock-Eastwood: The tone is hushed gravitas, photographed for maximum drabness (who knew Roger Deakins had such dingy cinematography in him?) and played as TV-sized dramaturgy. The previous movie's connect-the-dots montage has been blessedly dialed down, but Haggis's loudspeaker approach remains intact, and even the most offhand taunt ("Wouldn't it be funny if the Devil looked just like you?") seems to have sprung from a freshman's screenwriting software. Just as the director could not prod beyond the notion that Racism Is Bad, here he settles for the idea that War Corrupts and leaves it at that -- complexity to him is having a grunt say "It's fucked up, isn't it," answered by Jones's clipped "Yeah." I am all for dragging this shameful war to the screen, but condescending liberal dreck like In the Valley of Elah is just as awful as a thousand Fox-News commentators. Haggis wants to be the light searching the meadow at the darkest night, but he's really the guy by the bedside spelling out parables to audiences he sees as made up of children. Naturally, he lacks the honesty of the Jones character, who at least admits to being "not much of a storyteller."

*

Pick any zombie flick, and the walking undead will show more political resonance than Haggis's puppets. Until George Romero's latest gets its release, Resident Evil: Extinction will do. The opening is not bad at all, a teasing stroll through the corridors of the Umbrella Corporation capped with a craning-out punchline to posit this third installment as the franchise's Day of the Dead. Instead, Russell Mulcahy's movie reveals itself as the Blade: Trinity of the series, too often wandering from the bracing heroine (Mila Jovovich) to focus on a convoy of uninspired survivors (which includes Ali Larter, Oded Fehr and Ashanti) while imagining the barren, contaminated globe as an offshoot of Warrior of the Lost World, that paragon of '80s Mad Max rip-off. There are amusements: Views of post-apocalyptic Las Vegas, a bloodshot-eyed nod to The Birds, and a whole army of Jovovichs. Next to the grisly Good Luck, Chuck, which has the distinction of being the first comedy since Mannequin: On the Move that I remember not laughing at even once, this is an groovy bit of multiplex pandemonium.


Reviewed September 28, 2007.

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