Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg cut his formidable creative fangs on boldly bizarre, bleakly brainy, shamelessly sensuous and graphically gory horror classics like Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979), Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1983), his adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone (1983) and his remake of the sci-fi classic The Fly (1986). Later, his successful if subjective adaptations of such challenging literary works as William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (1991) and J. G. Ballard’s Crash (1996), thought to be untranslatable from page to screen due to the idiosyncratic and taboo natures of the respective works, confirmed his early promise as a visionary artist unafraid of risks as well as providing the bridge to his current, more “serious” period, making “respectable” movies in industry-friendly genres in order to broaden his artistic horizons, his critical acceptance, and hopefully his audience, beyond the fervent cult following he’s already developed and rightfully earned. Frankly, as a longtime admirer and loyal fan, I miss his earlier, scarier films the same way I miss Woody Allen’s earlier, funnier films. But a true artist must be true to his or her own muse, growing and adapting accordingly, and I respect Cronenberg’s recent efforts like the cool but frankly over-rated crime flick A History of Violence (2005) and its interesting follow-up Eastern Promises (2007). However, I must admit the last film of his that really knocked my socks off was his final true excursion into erotically charged, cerebral fantasy territory, 1999’s eXistenz. although 2002’s surreal saga of schizophrenia Spider was also pretty powerful, retaining much of his signature salacious savagery
A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg’s third film with actor Viggo Mortensen, who in this case (as it were) portrays sexually obsessed psychoanalytical pioneer Sigmund Freud as an elder foil to Michael Fassbender’s youthful and more spiritually inclined mental miner Carl Jung, seems like both a natural progression of his chosen career trajectory as well as affirmation of the edgy themes he’s been exploring and exposing all along, regardless of genre. The film, adapted from a 2002 play called The Talking Cure which in itself was adapted from John Kerr’s 1993 biographical/historical study A Most Dangerous Method, covers the dramatically fertile period of the two doctors’ fledgling friendship and professional antagonism around the turn of the 20th Century, focusing primarily on Jung’s illicit and perhaps ill conceived intimate relationship with a patient, Sabina Spielrein (a jarringly overwrought performance by Keira Knightly), who is “cured” via a questionable combination of professional and personal therapies, eventually becoming a practicing psychologist in her own right. I’m not sure if this was the point the piece was trying to make, but my reaction to all three true life characters was that they’re just as neurotic, insecure, conflicted, petty and self-delusional as the rest of us, with the only difference being they spend a lot of time and energy trying to understand and perhaps improve the human condition instead of simple suffering through our collective experience silently and stoically. The film moves along briskly, a remarkable feat considering how talky it is, but the scenes are so expertly directed, edited, written and for the most part, acted that it’s almost as absorbing as a well-crafted action flick, with no narrative fat to bog down the story. This is definitely a character-oriented as opposed to plot-driven piece, but then so was Naked Lunch, except this time, Cronenberg doesn’t give into his famous inclination for visually vivid and viscerally vile conceptualization, which, given Freud’s penchant for dream interpretation, could’ve easily been justified within the otherwise conservative context. But it’s not that kind of project, and Cronenberg remains true to the rather restrained sophistication of the source material. This is a movie that spends a lot of time talking about sex rather than actually showing it. Normally I’d find that kind of cruel cinematic teasing fatally dull and unforgivably pretentious. But not this time. While I greatly anticipate Cronenberg’s next film, another improbable if not impossible literary adaptation (Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis), and I still prefer the more outrageous, less subtle contributions to his canon, I found A Dangerous Method to be a somewhat static but philosophically compelling and intellectually stimulating experience, but maybe that just means I’m getting old, too.
A Dangerous Method is now playing at the Albany Twin and other Bay Area theaters.
Will “the Thrill” Viharo is a pulp fiction author and B Movie impresario.