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Creative destruction

Movies | Eastern Promises director David Cronenberg says he wants to treat violence seriously

Issue: "Survivors," Sept. 29, 2007

Unless you're seeing a comedy or a children's film (and sometimes even then), the next time you go to the movies you'll probably see a story about a central act of violence. Sometimes the violence looks fun or satisfying (in Braveheart, for example, or any of the Bourne movies), but in the films of David Cronenberg, it looks like the most horrible thing in the world.

Eastern Promises, the director's latest movie, skirts along the outside borders of even the more permissive R rating. The film's climactic bathhouse fight scene-in which Russian mobster Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) fights, naked, for his life with a pair of knife-wielding Chechen thugs-is so excruciating that even the seasoned actors and directors at the premiere were audibly cringing whenever a hook-shaped blade found its target.

So why visit that kind of indignity on your audience? "People lose sight of the fact that when we say 'violence,' we're talking about the destruction of a human body," Cronenberg said afterward. "It's not statistics." Cronenberg's films have been about people trying to escape a bad part of themselves; his last movie, A History of Violence, was very much about the wages of sin. In Eastern Promises, the film's central sinners look haunted by the things they've had to do to survive, and Cronenberg wants to make sure we understand why.

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Mortensen's enigmatic mafioso notes that he is living "in the zone all the time," a place where constant watchfulness is no guarantee of safety, but a necessity for survival. Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) stumbles into this zone, and suddenly, Nikolai has to decide whether to preserve his own life, or to endanger himself for the benefit of someone who might escape the horrors of the London underworld.

In many ways, Eastern Promises is an old-fashioned morality play about the need to preserve innocence (here, an orphaned newborn) from evil. It's not for anyone who wants to get a charge out of an action scene, or for the lucky few who have escaped desensitization to violence. But it does present an uncompromising and moral perspective on human depravity.

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