Sunday, January 20, 2008

Under the Skin

David Cronenberg's bid for respectability continues with Eastern Promises, his London-based thriller starring Naomi Watts as a midwife who runs afoul of the Russian mafia after both the baby and the diary of a deceased prostitute fall into her hands. Hitchcock would have had a ball with this premise (as well as the iconic icy-blonde lead), but old habits die hard for Cronenberg, who never met a slit throat or disembowelment or guillotined fingers that his camera couldn't linger on lovingly. The film's already-famous setpiece, a bloody brawl in a sauna featuring Viggo Mortensen's disgruntled Russkie chaffeur (who gradually comes to assist Watts's quest for justice) fending off a pair of assassins with nothing but a towel, and eventually less, is stunningly choreographed. Unfortunately, Cronenberg's patented overkill style creates too much dissonance from the moral themes in Steve Knight's script, resulting in a film that should have resonated more deeply than it did.

I almost wish I had attended a screening of Bug during its opening weekend last year, just to see the dropped jaws of the dudes and dudettes who had eagerly lined up for a disingenuously-advertised splatter film only to witness a nutball psychological thriller unfolding before their eyes. I initially wasn't aware of Tracy Letts's original stage play either, but the film's roots are evident from start to finish, with its claustrophobic hotel setting and babbling brooks of dialogue and horrors more implied than shown. Those premiere audiences reportedly gave Bug quite a hard time, and admittedly I was tittering quite a bit myself in the movie's second half, when the bond between Ashley Judd's lonely waitress and Michael Shannon's creepy conspiracy-theorist (who believes that bugs are popping out of his skin, among other things) enters the twilight zone of schizophrenic paranoid delusions involving a lot of screaming and flailing limbs and self-inflicted dentistry and wrapping things in tin foil. In many ways it's a terrible movie, yet I don't hate it. From a distance I even feel a bit of affection for it, namely regarding the actors' willingness to risk making fools of themselves (and boy, do they ever) and the ingenuity of director William Friedkin's subjective staging. The recurring motif in Friedkin's body of work (which includes The French Connection, The Exorcist, and Sorcerer) is the Self-Immolating Male, and He's back again, only this time adding a female lead to what ends in a Molotov-cocktail mix. For sheer lunatic intensity, Judd's performance in the final 20 minutes rivals Daniel Day-Lewis's at the climax of There Will Be Blood: insofar as catchphrases go, "I am the Super Mother Bug" isn't quite up to the level of "I drink your milkshake," but it's close.

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