Continuing our exploration into the link between Jews and crime, Sean Alexander looks at two David Cronenberg gangster films.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that body horror director David Cronenberg’s canon of work is a world away from the crime thriller genre. Admittedly, Cronenberg’s halcyon period between Shivers (1975) and The Fly (1986) rarely crept any further than meditations on disease, mutation and the intersection between constantly evolving technology and the human condition. With 1988’s Dead Ringers Cronenberg did finally break away from his perceived milieu with an almost bloodless story of obsessive love between twin gynaecologists, and the resultant decade saw further distancing from the horror genre with such literary adaptations as Naked Lunch (1991), Crash (1996) and Spider (2002), alongside equally arresting films as M. Butterfly (1993) and Existenz (1999). While many of these dealt with either illegal or criminal behaviour (drug abuse, joyriding, matricide, and even espionage), it would be the pair of films Cronenberg directed in the mid-to-late noughties that saw him confront the crime thriller genre head-on.
Both A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007) have their roots in organised crime and the Jewish coding via obfuscation within its operations. A History of Violence is based on a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke and tells the story of small-town café owner Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) who shows remarkable skills in self-defence when his business is threatened late one evening by two hold-up gangsters (Stephen McHattie and Greg Bryk), killing both and becoming a local celebrity as a result. His notoriety attracts the attention of Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) and his heavies, first with sinister suggestions that Tom is not all that he seems, and later with direct violence towards Tom’s wife Edie (Maria Bello) and children Jack and Sarah (Ashton Holmes and Heidi Hayes). As Tom is once again forced to resort to extreme levels of force to protect his family, they are forced to confront the truth that Tom was once, in fact, Joey Cusack, a mob operative for a mafia family back in Pennsylvania. With his family unsure of who their husband and father are any more, Tom faces the stark fact that he must return to ‘Philly where brother Richie (William Hurt) waits, extinguishing the last embers of his past before he can return to his present (and future).
Whilst A History of Violence, on the whole, isn’t explicit in its Jewish depiction of family, much of the film’s themes and titles are very much so. ‘Joey’ recalls the Biblical ‘favoured son’ Joseph, here the father of Jack (Jacob) and Sarah, both significant names in Judaism. Their family name of ‘Stall’ is likewise suggestive of a Jewish derivation (‘Stoll’ meaning ‘unexplained’, rather appositely, in Yiddish). Son Jack has to deal with a particularly nasty example of school bullying, his reactions initially being to use humour and self-effacement to undermine his alpha-male antagonist (which recalls the Jewish male stereotype of ‘queer or sissy’ Jew, perhaps best illustrated by the kind of nebbish schlemiel protagonists portrayed by Woody Allen in his heyday of 1970s films). Tom’s assumed identity is again resonant of the Jewish requirement to adopt ‘less Jewish’ names in both Hollywood’s golden age tradition and in wider society at large. The conclusive confrontation between warring brothers, Tom and Richie Cusack, is likewise analogous to the Biblical Jacob and Esau’s own filial struggle. Following the attack on the diner where Tom is stabbed in the foot by one of the hold-up men, he struggles to run with a limp (again coding him as the Jewish Jacob, who also stole his birth-right from his brother – much as Joey does from Richie at the film’s conclusion). Tom’s name is itself suggestive of Doubting Thomas, who denies Jesus three times after his arrest and subsequent crucifixion (much as events in the film cause his family to ‘doubt’ Tom).
With its dominant theme of masculinity and the polarising types of Jewish male archetypes between ‘tough’ and ‘queer’ Jew, A History of Violence acts as a powerful metaphor for the hidden identities of Jewish men. While mild-manned Tom has symbolically extinguished his past life as a mafia hoodlum well versed in extreme violence and contract killing, son Jack struggles with his own dilemma of choosing the peaceful, cerebral path only to the point where extreme violence is a necessary means to an end. When Jack finally turns on his persecutor, it’s with both the unrepressed violence and homophobic language to which he was previously a victim. The sins of the father are here visited on the son, much as Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own child in the name of God is only prevented when the all-powerful steps in before the deed is done.
Eastern Promises offers a very different view of organised crime, set in the globalized London of the early 21st century where Russian crime syndicates are involved in prostitution, people trafficking and drug smuggling. Here Viggo Mortensen plays Nikolai, in a similar role of an undercover Russian policeman who has inveigled himself into the higher echelons of a Russian cabal called the Vory Z Zakone (‘thieves by the code’). Nikolai acts as both problem solver and driver to Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the patriarchal head of the syndicate whose son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) is coded as queer through both his inability to rape a girl (whose later death attracts the involvement of a nurse) and his homoerotic ‘friendship’ with Nikolai. Despite being his father’s only son, Kirill’s position is threatened by Nikolai’s devotion and willingness to dirty his own hands, again setting the two men as warring ‘brothers’ in the manner of Joey and Richie in A History of Violence (and biblically, Isaac and Ishmael).
Nikolai befriends (H)Anna(h) (Naomi Watts), the nurse on duty when the mother of a baby she has taken a personal interest in dies as a result of childbirth and drug addiction. The baby’s existence is crucial to bringing down the whole Russian syndicate, linking Semyon with not only child prostitution and rape (she is underage when she conceives her child) but also offering Nikolai an opportunity to usurp the head of the syndicate and take his place at its centre. Despite starting out as an undercover operative, Nikolai has gone too far into the Vory for his extraction to be either possible or conducive to his health. When he convinces Kirill not to murder the baby on the instructions of his father – depicting the child as some Moses-like survivor, set to lead its people to some future promised land – Nikolai takes Semyon’s place. This Biblical symbolism of a child in a crib being set free on water (here the River Thames rather than the River Jordan) is itself explicit, and probably the closest Cronenberg ever got to alluding to either The Ten Commandments (1956) or Ben-Hur (1959), both starring the non-Jewish Charlton Heston in significant Jewish roles.
Mimicry and Jewishness is a dominant theme in Cronenberg’s films, and no less so than in A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. Both films act as complementary pieces to one another, with their themes of organised crime and the ‘struggle to escape/willingness to be absorbed’ dichotomy of their powerful influences. For a filmmaker more adept at examining the schisms between humanity and technology, these two latter-day entries into his canon show that Cronenberg was equally comfortable with depicting the criminal mind as he was the scientific one.