Excited by Essential Killing, I thought I’d check out Skolimowski’s only horror film for SHOCKtober. But calling it horror is like calling Essential Killing a political drama, inadequately simple labels for such weird and complex movies. The bulk of this one is a flashback/story told by Alan Bates to Tim Curry while scorekeeping a cricket game at some kind of asylum. Bates admits that he’s changing parts of the story to keep it interesting for himself – and we’re never sure if he’s a patient or what, so the narrator is unreliable to say the least. And as the commentary notes, “casting Tim Curry as your sanity figure suggests that the world is fairly skewed.”

Alan Bates lurks:

A cowed-looking John Hurt (the year before Alien, so the earliest film I’ve seen of his – though I must find Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs from ’74), a church organist by day and electronic composer in his spare time, is happily married to Susannah York (star of Altman’s Images). But one day Alan Bates (Chabrol’s Dr. M, Julie Christie’s illicit lover in The Go-Between) appears, tampers with Hurt’s bicycle tire, then invites himself over. He stalks the couple causing minor mischief then starts not-so-subtly taking over the family.

John Hurt rocks out in his home studio:

Alan Bates, head of household:

To prove his power to Hurt, they go off to the dunes and Bates demonstrates “the terror shout,” taught to him by an aboriginal magician. Somehow Hurt isn’t killed by this, but has a weird experience where he’s holding a stone, believing himself to be the town shoemaker. When he returns home, his wife is under Bates’s spell, and Hurt is the interloper. But he recalls the identity stones, goes off and smashes them to regain control of his household. Back at the house, Bates is arrested for the murder of his children (to which he confessed to Hurt and York earlier). Strange that Bates would be anxious to tell a tale which ends in his own defeat.

You can’t understand the extreme greatness of this shot without watching the whole film:

The police foolishly come for Alan Bates:

Meanwhile back in the framing story, a thunderstorm wrecks the cricket game. Jim Broadbent, in his first film role as “fielder in cowpat,” runs around half-naked smeared in mud or worse. Lightning strikes the scoring box, Bates is killed, and in another odd scene which also played over the opening credits, York comes tearing into the room where the dead lay, distraught.

Fielder in cowpat:

Reminded me of The Last Wave in its aboriginal magic and weirdly apocalyptic feel. Commentary brings up Caligari, which I should’ve thought of. The wife isn’t much of a character, just passed between the two men, but she definitely shows her acting chops in one intense sexual scene. Mostly minimal music by “the two guys from Genesis you probably have forgotten.”

Vincent Gallo was amazing in this, won an acting award in Venice. He plays a soldier captured by U.S. forces after blowing up three guys with a rocket launcher – at least that’s what I thought. A couple things I read online suggest that he lifted the launcher off another soldier in the cave, or found it there when he was just stumbling by, but that wasn’t how it looked to me. Anyway, he kills enough people over the course of the movie – and is antagonized and tortured enough – that it’s clear (even from the title) that the movie isn’t making him out to be evil nor especially sympathetic. He is trying to stay alive in the midst of social and military conflict. He doesn’t manage, but not for lack of trying. The movie’s many action scenes are tense and powerful, the images are often poetic, and with Gallo’s great performance on top of that, this has become one of my favorite recent films.

After the initial attack, Gallo is pursued by helicopters and deafened by a rocket strike. He’s interrogated and waterboarded, then escapes when a prisoner transport truck tumbles off-road in what turns out to be Poland. He tries to surrender and make himself known to his captors, but sees a chance and kills a couple of guys instead, escaping into the wilderness – later pursued by dogs and falling into a river to escape. Now he’s in the snow on unfamiliar ground, eating insects and berries to survive, starving, having delusions. He hitches a ride on a logging truck and kills a logger, then in the movie’s weirdest scene, assaults a nursing mother to get milk. He ends up at a sympathetic mute woman’s house (Emmanuelle Seigner of The Ninth Gate and Bitter Moon), for one night of rest and recovery. But by now he’s mortally wounded, escapes on a white horse but doesn’t last long.

M. Atkinson:

As a filmmaker with a puzzling half-century of peculiar projects and long silences and catholic passions behind him, Skolimowski has always been a marginal figure, erratically appearing and helming films so disparate he’s a living disputation to the auteur theory. His work defines him as a searcher, a road movie antihero still looking for his mythical home on the horizon. One of the most interesting nomads in a film culture filthy with them, Skolimowski was cut loose from the Eastern Bloc in the late ’60s and has been roaming the plains of the global industries ever since, coming full circle in his new film, lost in the icy Carpathian wilderness.

It’s a film designed to be noticed, a film about the Afghanistan war that doggedly, even perversely, resists overt politics; an on-location survival saga shot with a recognizable American-indie star (Vincent Gallo) who has not a word of dialogue; a physically rough ordeal that’s meticulously staged and framed on the razor’s edge between pulp excitement and arty poeticism but never quite tumbles into either camp.

Earlier I wrote: “Movie was good. Not holy-wow-mindblowing, but Cronie knows how to shoot a movie, so despite any narrative failings the whole thing was a raw pleasure to watch.”

And it’s not a “failed” narrative, but everyone seems to agree that there isn’t much there. Cronenberg seems to have bought a barebones nothing-special script about the Russian mafia in London (written by nothing-special author Steve Knight of Dirty Pretty Things and Amazing Grace) and given it a few Cronenberg touches (an extreme fight scene, heavy focus on tattoos), then directed the hell out of it. Ever since re-watching Existenz recently I’ve been thinking about how watchable his films are, how I feel a high-quality tension from them that I never think to analyze in terms of camera placement and shot length, but just relish and enjoy. So while it’s no History of Violence in his overall career, it’s not a disappointment either. The guy does not know how to disappoint.

The great acting doesn’t hurt, either. Viggo Mortensen is back from HoV, playing a deep-undercover cop infiltrating the Russian mob. Naomi Watts (remember King Kong?) is an overly concerned hospital midwife trying to find a family member of the young girl who died giving birth so it won’t go up for adoption. Armin Mueller-Stahl (X-Files, 13th Floor) is the mob head and secret father of the baby. In the intense-unstable-closeted role is mobster son Vincent Cassel (Blueberry, La Haine, Brotherhood of the Wolf), and as Naomi’s racist russian uncle is Jerzy Skolimowski, a Polish 60’s filmmaker (who also acted in Before Night Falls and Mars Attacks) currently shooting his first film in 17 years with Isabelle Huppert and Dennis Hopper [edit 2011: this was cancelled and he made Four Nights With Anna instead].

At the center of the story is the dead girl’s diary which implicates Armin and Vincent but is written in Russian. Jerzy translates it, so Viggo has to kill him (actually sends him to a hotel, being a cop and all). In the end, presumably Armin is locked up on a rape charge, with Vincent in charge of the family (he gets to live despite almost murdering a baby) and Viggo about to take it down from the inside, Naomi’s family happily together again.

As for Cronenbergian script touches, you’ve got your naked sauna knife fight, your life written on your body in tattoo form, your finger-chopping body-disposal man and three other big bloody scenes. And since, despite all my writing online I still haven’t learned how to analyze and discuss a movie, I can’t put my finger on why (couldn’t be empty boosterism of my favorite directors, could it?), but I feel it’s a quality movie, exquisitely filmed and paced, and thrilling to watch.

Interestingly, in Reverse Shot’s review, Andrew Tracy directly addresses the question I ask above, saying it is boosterism, and that it’s hurtful to the world of film criticism to pretend that Eastern Promises is a good movie. He says “unequivocal praise or panning is the unfortunate rule of these latter days of criticism”, then aggravatingly calls it “a failed film”. I don’t know that anyone considers it a masterpiece, and by the AV Club rating system I’d only give it a B or B+, but I reserve the term “failure” for a D-grade or below. “Failed film” sounds like “if it isn’t great, it’s rubbish”, and a good B+ thriller with some great acting and a few outstanding scenes isn’t rubbish. Rather it’s a movie I’m very glad I saw, instead of going to The Brave One or Shoot ’em Up or Halloween, all recent additions to my endless to-rent list.

Nice one from Reverse Shot:

With the aid of Mortensen’s granitic face and body—which is not simply a given quality but an acted entity—Cronenberg depicts flesh as armour, the shell of a man who lives entirely through his outward gestures. Mortensen’s impeccable overcoat, suit, gloves, and slicked-back hair are further layers of a constructed identity that begins with the skin, which itself is covered with the tattoos relating the story of his life to his underworld masters. The progressive stripping, both literal and metaphorical, of Nikolai throughout the film reveals not the person beneath the artifice, but the meticulously constructed series of artifices which constitute the person himself.