“While I slept a coo-coo came
As naked as could be
And put on the skin
And screwed on the head
That once belonged to me.
Now wearing my feet
He runs through the street
In a most disgraceful way.
Doin’ things and sayin’ things
I’d never do or say.”
– Shel Silverstein, Skin Stealer
Of all the transformations in the films of David Cronenberg, maker of such films as Videodrome, The Fly and The Brood, none are as startling as Cronenberg himself. For thirty years, Cronenberg’s penchant for body horror, surrealism and use of physical symbolism forced him into a niche market of horror films; even when he acted in movies rather than directed, Cronenberg was often relegated to forgettable B-grade horror movies. Although appreciated within horror circle for connecting physical transformations with character evolution or psychological movement, Cronenberg seemed destined to never break into the cinematic mainstream.
But the last ten years have been exceedingly kind to Cronenberg, simply because he came to realize that he could find less dramatic ways to use the bodies of his protagonists to convey narratives about sexuality, identity and violence. Cronenberg translated these ideas into his best-known work, A History of Violence, in 2005; and since then, he has reexamined the same ideas in three other films, of which only one mainstream enough for audiences to appreciate. Cosmopolis, with Robert Pattinson, was considered too avant-garde by many (and Pattinson’s association with the Twilight films drove away many viewers), and 2011’s A Dangerous Method, which focused on the personal and professional vendettas between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, was dismissed as dry and hyperfocused on repressed sexuality. This leaves 2005’s Eastern Promises as Cronenberg’s best work, post-Violence, and the only film in his repertoire which he uses within the confines of a genre film to cleverly disguise his intentions.
Promises is propelled through the narrative through a strong use of parallel actions between the two protagonists, Anna (Naomi Watts), a London nurse who is seeking an identity as a mother, and Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), an enforcer for a family of Russian gangsters. Nikolai and Anna come together when an underage prostitute dies in Anna’s hospital while delivering a child, the product of a violent rape. As Anna attempts to unravel the conditions of the prostitute’s life and death, Nikolai begins to position himself as an up-and-comer within his mafia peers, undermining his immediate boss (Vincent Cassel, playing a wonderful, sniveling drunk) in order to gain the trust of the clan’s head, played by German actor Armin Mueller-Stahl. As Anna puts herself at risk in order to protect and adopt the baby she has saved, Nikolai is revealed not to be a simple goon, but a long-term undercover agent of the Russian security forces, working as a mole to gain entry into the Russian mafia’s inner circle of chieftains, and Nikolai then has to choose whether or not saving Anna and her baby are more important than completing his assignment.
The first act of Promises uses parallel action to demonstrate Nikolai and Anna’s motives and roles. The first two immediate scenes are of bloodshed, where an outlying Chechan gangster is assassinated, and the underage prostitute dies giving birth. The use of bloody introduction- taking away life, then giving it back- is followed up by scenes where both protagonists are shown to have gruesome affiliations with the dead: Anna takes a diary off of the body of the dead prostitute, for translation purposes in identifying her, and is accused by her uncle of “stealing from the bodies of the dead”, while Nikolai, dismembering the Chechan’s body for disposal, removes the dead man’s wallet and repays the man’s assassin from the money within. Cronenberg’s setting of character with this- that neither Anna nor Nikolai are overwhelmed with a burden of morals, despite their respective roles as healthcare provider and police officer; but it is these lack of scruples that allow them to cut through to what they perceive as required actions.
The downward spiral of Nikolai and Anna continues in the second act, as Mortensen becomes more enveloped by his desire to ascend through the mafia ranks. To do this, he has sex with a forced Russian immigrant prostitute, runs Anna’s uncle out of town, and lastly, kills two men in a knife fight within a Russian bath house. All the while, Nikolai attempts to recoup his conscience by making meaningless gestures of humanity to those around him- fixing Anna’s motorcycle, having a prostitute get rescued by the London police, and suggesting to Anna that she adopt the dead woman’s baby- not seeing that his actions are putting Anna at far more risk than before. For her part, Anna goes out of her way to provoke the Russians, threatening them with exposure and forcing Nikolai to intervene on her behalf- again, not realizing that by doing so, she puts Mortensen’s entire investigation at risk of failure.
More important than Cronenberg’s use of recurring action and theme, however, is his return to body horror as a function of genre that is ultimately elevated to psychic transference. For each of Nikolai’s physical mutilations through the film, a corresponding psychological change is made in the man himself. In the opening scene,where Nikolai in his role of an “undertaker” dismembers a body, he first extinguishes his cigarette on his own tongue- in this case, perhaps a subtle punishment of himself for performing such a job. Nikolai also establishes himself as a genuine Russian vor by covering his body in Russian mafia tattoos, which has allowed him initial access to the gangsters at film’s beginning; these tattoos are then later augmented by his superiors in an effort to betray Nikolai and protect their own. But by this time, Nikolai’s gangster persona has overcome his past identity, to the point where no one would be able to distinguish the two- Nikolai mentions this to his undercover handler by telling him, “tell them I’m through the door”. Nikolai’s initiation into the upper echelons of the mafia now complete, his appearance is then altered one last time during the bath house fight, where he gains a Y-shaped scar across his cheek- a physical deformation that cannot be hidden, just as Nikolai’s murder of two men is a crime beyond the limits of what his undercover assignment allows.
In The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Alan Moore’s seminal 2000 imagining of Victorian superheroes-another work set in London- Moore used preexisting characters from that era and twisted them into new shapes both physically and emotionally. In Gentlemen’s first volume, the main antagonist is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dr. Moriarty, whom doubles as Sherlock Holmes’ brother Mycroft, head of the British intelligence services. When his identity as Moriarty is revealed, Holmes questions his own nature in a monologue about shadowboxing, saying,
“In espionage’s twilight world, all shadows have substance. Am I, for example, a director of military intelligence posing as a criminal? Or a criminal posing as a director of military intelligence? Or both?”
This is the box into which Nikolai has drawn himself by film’s end. Deluded that he is continuing his role as a mafia elder in order to bring down corruption from the inside, he fails to see that his role in the film has created, and perpetuated, far more violence than either Cassel or Mueller-Stahl’s characters ever did. At no point is Nikolai shown to have solved any of the problems that his character creates; only that he replaces the organized crime figure before him as the new figurehead. In his last scene with Anna, Nikolai kisses her as they cradle the unnamed baby between them, and in that moment, you can see that Nikolai is saying goodbye to any chance of having a life with other people inside it- the last time we see him, he is sitting alone at a table, scarred and emotionless, silent. No woman or child with him, as the gangster before him had; and no criminal peers that he can trust. In shutting out any bit of trust in those around him, Nikolai has not only sacrificed the hope for regaining his own life, but unknowingly ensured that he will fail in his original mission. The phrase from which the film takes its title refers to the promises used to entice women into lives of forced prostitution: thinking that they were en route to a better life, they sacrificed themselves for other’s pleasure and profit. Nikolai does the same with himself, enticed by a promise of justice for others, but surrendering to the loss of his psyche.