A Dangerous Method (Sony Pictures Classics, R)

film dangerous-method smI tend to prefer David Cronenberg when he’s heavier on action and lighter on psychological fare.

film dangerous-method lg

In A Dangerous Method, his third collaboration with actor Viggo Mortensen, David Cronenberg gets away from the action-based premises of their previous, fruitful collaborations, 2005’s A History of Violence and 2007’s Eastern Promises. Here instead we have a psychological drama (quite literally) based on the true story of the odd, antagonistic friendship/rivalry between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Mortensen). While Freud is certainly a pivotal character in the film, Jung takes center stage, perhaps only challenged for main-character status by Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), who begins as Jung’s patient (and guinea pig, since psychoanalysis was basically untested at this point) but gets promoted first to lover and eventually to protégé and co-psychoanalyst.

As I often find Cronenberg’s oeuvre hit and miss, A Dangerous Method mostly left me cold. I tend to prefer the director when he’s heavier on action and lighter on psychological fare—for frame of reference, I adore A History of Violence but was irritated and bored with 2002’s Spider—so his departure from his previous works with Mortensen is unwelcome. The described lack of action doesn’t mean that he doesn’t give his trademark amount of screen time to blood and goo, though; it’s just in a different context here than it typically has been in the past. (You can discover how for yourself.)

While Fassbender and Mortensen are uniformly good (which is not at all surprising), the film’s biggest misstep is the casting of Keira Knightley as Sabina. It gets complicated here, though, as the issue isn’t so much that Knightley does a poor job in her role—in actuality, she’s just fine—but the thing is that it’s a very demanding, showy role, and to watch Knightley hamming it up really takes you out of the reality of the picture. While she becomes ever more stable as a human being (thereby showing the potential of psychoanalysis to help people), as the film begins, she’s a mess of verbal and physical tics, constantly thrusting out her lower jaw, baring her teeth, or wiggling her limbs in weird ways, barely able to stammer out simple sentences. I admire the lack of vanity in the performance, but I feel like if an unknown has been in the role, it wouldn’t have been such an impediment to the reality of the film. (I spent most of the first half of the movie thinking about how much Keira really seemed to be going for it, and not really thinking about the rest of the film or what it was trying to tell me.)

That’s a shame, as it goes against what the movie appears to be trying to do, and it’s fair to say that I had a healthy interest in the subject matter going into the film. If it doesn’t appeal to me, a viewer fascinated by the story and generally supportive of the filmmakers’ previous efforts, it’s hard to figure out just who this film’s audience is going to be. | Pete Timmermann

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