Eastern Promises Directed by David Cronenberg. Now in Theaters
David Cronenberg has become a master of the dark. He's on a path provided by the visceral that goes beyond fashionable filmic fear into nonnegotiable dread. There we find Eastern Promises.
Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), a midwife at a London hospital, receives a patient in the late stages of labor and badly hemorrhaging. The wife dies, leaving a newborn girl and a diary written in Russian -- coincidentally Anna's heritage. Taking the chronicle home, hoping to find some clue to the woman's identity, she asks her surly uncle to translate it. A business card buried in its pages leads Anna to a Siberian restaurant.
The surprisingly accommodating proprietor, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), denies any knowledge of the girl, but still offers to translate the diary. Exuding an unctuous paternalism, he suggests there's no need for the midwife to bother; he will take responsibility for the matter.
This seems like decent advice, given the standard issue dark suits, black cars, and a general lack of mirth surrounding the establishment. One of the foot soldiers, Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen), a "chauffer" whose stock ebony couture nonetheless sneaks a bit of accessorized style, shows a special interest in Anna. While wary of him, the danger as a whole still eludes her antennae.
As the contents of the diary emerge, revealing the deceased as a viciously abused sex slave, a prisoner of a crime syndicate, everyone's cards hit the table. Anna wants the baby, the Russians want the diary. The clever and suspenseful plot serves its real purpose as a canvas for the increasingly potent brush of Cronenberg, who brings by nuance and tone to the screen what Cormac McCarthy brings to literature: characters who long ago traded off their souls.
Eastern Promises is more refined than A History of Violence, which is saying something; the devices less evident, the lapses of tone almost nonexistent. In this accomplishment Cronenberg must share credit with Watts and Mortensen, both bringing fine contributions.
Snow Cake Directed by Marc Evans (2006). On DVD
The economy of movie making for wide audiences requires the shorthand of stereotypes. Stepping outside of the box requires courage for the filmmaker and audience, a justified venture in the case of Snow Cake.
Alex (Alan Rickman), just released from prison and on his way to pick up the pieces of his life, picks up a hitchhiker instead. Headed east across Canada, the roads are snowy and slick. Stopped at an intersection, his car is hit by a truck gone out of control. The collision upends Alex's SUV. The passenger, a young woman whom he had barely come to know, does not survive.
His lack of fault in the incident notwithstanding, he feels a responsibility. The police assure him they are notifying the family. They actually discourage him from doing so. He persists, finds the address and arrives at the door, introducing himself. Linda (Sigourney Weaver), the mother of the deceased, shows little appreciation, somewhat bemused by his efforts.
Linda's mental condition, at first glance, resembles a developmental delay. Her selective obsessions and quirky intellect suggest an abnormality of a different kind, which eventually reveals itself as autism. The funeral and the events leading up to it prevent the processing of grief in a way suiting her sensibilities. The necessity to accommodate the superfluous and suffocating gestures from the townspeople, which end with a gathering at her house, prove unnerving. In the days leading to the ceremony, Alex serves to assist her in the preparations.
There have been several notable films over the years -- Rain Man, Forrest Gump, and I Am Sam come to mind -- dealing with the mentally challenged and their struggle to function in society. None of those movies rise above the novelty of the issue with the sophistication of Snow Cake. Weaver's Linda is a whole person, with a mind capable of preferences and the ability to articulate them. The drama transcends her peculiar cognitive process and places it in context with the struggles that confront us all, making for an entertaining and thought-provoking offering.