Director: David Cronenberg
Screenplay: Christopher Hampton
Producer: Jeremy Thomas
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, Vincent Cassel
Runtime: 99 min.
Cronenberg and psychoanalysis seem like a match made in heaven – few directors have probed the depths of the bizarre and cerebral as frequently or successfully as Cronenberg. While films like Videodrome and A History of Violence are generally known for their visceral brutality, such a view should not hold up beyond a perfunctory glance. Cronenberg’s films are quite dependent upon the neuroses and motivations of their characters, as well as the mindset of the viewer. Sure, there is quite a bit of shock value to be had … but the human mind and its hopes, wants, needs, and desires are consistently at the forefront of Cronenberg’s works.
At face value, A Dangerous Method is the perfect storm of subject matter and director; and this, without even considering the wonderful casting.
A Dangerous Method chronicles the relationship, rivalry, and evolution of the forerunners of modern psychoanalysis – Sigmund Freud (Mortensen) and his semi-protégé Carl Jung (Fassbender). The primary focus of the two titanic minds is sex. That is, the impact of sex and sexual deviancies on society, and the impact of societal norms on sexuality. Sabine Spielrein (Knightley) is the lens through which the story develops, both in terms of the narrative (her interactions with Freud and Jung) and her standout performance.
Perhaps inevitably, this is essentially a one-setting talking piece. While the place may change, all but tossing a monkey wrench in my metaphor, the narrative is very straightforward and the interactions of the characters rarely shift, rendering the setting itself all but immaterial (with few exceptions). As a result, A Dangerous Method must sink or swim on the strength of its subject matter and characters.
My knowledge of psychoanalysis is admittedly limited to ‘Psychology 101’ and the occasional Freudian slip joke. I have always found the human mind interesting, yet I have never truly delved into the bevy of research and writing on the topic. At its core, A Dangerous Method piques this interest, yet leaves it relatively unsatisfied. The banter between Freud and Jung often feels dumbed down, and the characters themselves seem almost disinterested – this isn’t a critique of the actors, but rather of the dialogue itself … the debate seems more akin to preening than anything else. Further, the interactions between Freud and Spielrein, Jung and Spielrein, and the three together felt somewhat underwhelming. There was never a true sense that something was at stake, despite the fact that there was, or at least should have been.
Surprisingly, the aforementioned flaws cannot quite be laid at the feet of the cast. Mortensen provides a solid turn, up to the standard that most have come to expect. I was somewhat disappointed that he didn’t steal a few scenes, but I don’t believe that his character ever had such a chance. Fassbender is likewise strong, albeit inconsistent from scene to scene. His Jung was somewhat cold and calculating, but the seething nature that intensifies many of his actions comes and goes without warning.
Knightley is the true star of the film, wavering between sympathetic and deplorable with gusto. Her body language is as powerful as any word uttered during the course of the film, and her ability to distort her facial features is reminiscent of Jim Carrey – and I mean that as a true compliment. At this moment, I am unsure that there has been a turn more worthy of Best Actress consideration to-date.
Cronenberg’s direction is quite reserved, choosing to focus on the characters themselves. The camera lingers on whomever has the floor, and slowly traces the conversation and interaction from speaker to speaker. Attention to detail is ubiquitous, yet A Dangerous Method is otherwise lacking in traditional Cronenberg fare, appearing as something of an homage to the talented director.
A Dangerous Method is something less than the sum of its parts. Mortensen and Fassbender are not given ample time to shine, and Knightley’s tremendous performance cannot piece together those moments where she is not carrying the scene. Each of the performances are worthwhile, yet the interactions are somewhat lacking. The subject matter is intriguing, yet it is not given enough attention. There is nothing terribly disappointing per se, beyond the feeling that this film could have been so much more.
In the end, A Dangerous Method doesn’t quite sink or swim … it treads water.