By Ezra Stead
A Dangerous Method, UK / Germany / Canada / Switzerland
Directed by David Cronenberg
A Dangerous Method could be called the final film in director David Cronenberg’s Viggo Mortensen trilogy. Beginning with 2005’s A History of Violence, Cronenberg has used the estimable actor in each film he’s made up until now, with the brief exception of his short film for the 2007 anthology To Each His Own Cinema (the wonderfully titled “At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World in the Last Cinema in the World”), in which only Cronenberg himself starred. This triptych of films, which also includes 2007’s Russian mob story Eastern Promises, marks a distinct departure from the type of filmmaking that made Cronenberg’s name synonymous with gruesome, highly physical horror – see masterpieces like Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1986) and Dead Ringers (1988) – and ever more into the territory of restrained human drama. While it lacks some of the visceral punches (the “Cronenberg touches,” as many reviewers called them) found in the previous two films, Method is probably the most consistent and accomplished work, and though it is certainly a bit drier, it is no less consummately entertaining.
Though I enjoyed both of his previous two features and certainly don’t begrudge Cronenberg his ambition to be recognized by the “respectable” critical establishment as one of the very best filmmakers working today (a fact of which the gore-hound community has already long been aware), I had a few misgivings about each of the other Viggo pictures, none of which related to the man’s excellent performances. Though I thoroughly admired History‘s frank sexuality and often surprisingly subtle examination of a man trying to escape his past, I also felt it was slightly mired down by a few implausibilities and genre cliches, culminating in William Hurt’s ridiculously overwrought (and overrated) performance as mob boss Richie Cusack in the film’s final act. Promises, on the other hand, suffered, for me, from that rarest of all critical complaints: it was too damn short. What could have easily been the best gangster epic since Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) ends shortly after its most exhilarating moment, and just before it could have gone into a whole new, extremely intriguing fourth act. Instead of a lengthy, absorbing, Shakespearean saga, it is a solid 100-minute movie with a great performance from Mortensen and a few brilliant moments.
Method strays farther than ever from the sort of thing for which Cronenberg is traditionally known, avoiding grotesque violence entirely and even, surprisingly for a Cronenberg film that tackles the subject of psychoanalysis, eschewing any surreal dream imagery in favor of a witty, character-driven ensemble piece examining the relationship between Sigmund Freud (Mortensen), Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and the patient who brings them together and, in a way, ultimately tears them apart, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). Spielrein initially seeks treatment with Jung for debilitating neuroses that manifest themselves in strange, seizure-like physical behaviors, and together they begin to discover the root causes in the sexual excitement she received from humiliations and physical abuse at the hands of her father. She is no weak-willed victim, however, and soon Jung finds himself in an obsessive, guilt-ridden affair with her, while simultaneously encouraging her to become the great psychoanalyst she eventually became.
Jung’s relationship with Freud begins as a marathon 13-hour conversation, and detractors of the film could easily complain that it is too “talky.” The screenplay was adapted by Christopher Hampton from John Kerr’s book, A Most Dangerous Method, as well as his own play, The Talking Cure, and it has the feel of a play in much the same way as other excellent stage-to-screen adaptations like Roman Polanski’s Death and the Maiden (1994) and Richard Linklater’s Tape (2001). However, Cronenberg’s eye for composition is always subtly on display, and he and longtime cinematographer Peter Suschitzky keep the proceedings from getting too stagy or non-cinematic. Scenes set in Vienna’s Belvedere Gardens are especially gorgeous and, in context, evocative of the maze-like mental structures which Freud and Jung seek to explore.
Above all, though, this is an actor’s movie, and while Knightley gives undoubtedly her best performance to date and has the most scenery to chew, Mortensen’s calmly arrogant Freud and Fassbender’s subtle but constant inner turmoil as Jung are equally fascinating to watch. Perhaps most enjoyable of all, though, is the great French actor Vincent Cassel, returning to Cronenberg’s repertoire from Eastern Promises, this time as anarchistic Freud disciple Otto Gross, who undergoes analysis with Jung early in the film. Perhaps it is mainly that his unconventional views of sexuality and society are most in line with my own, but it is a wonderfully roguish and delightful performance that, for me, is over all too soon, basically a cameo made by unvarnished id amongst the three-way battle between the egos of Freud, Jung and Spielrein.
Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’tGet.com. Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper and poet who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.
For more information, please contact EzraStead@MoviesIDidntGet.com.