David Cronenberg's movies are known for oozing subtext beneath layers of freaky genre excess, digging into the mysterious crevices of human behavior. His latest movie looks downright tame by comparison. But the secret appeal of "A Dangerous Method," a keen look at the relationship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, is it explains everything else in the Cronenberg oeuvre. Newbies should start here and work their way back, slowly descending into the filmmaker's dark interests and gradually soaking in his themes before watching them run wild.
It should be noted (as Leonard Maltin does in today's Critical Consensus column) that the stylish, talky brilliance of "A Dangerous Method" does not belong to Cronenberg alone. Christopher Hampton's screenplay culls from his 2002 play "The Talking Cure," which in turn adapted Jon Kerr's 1994 tome "A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabin Spielrein." That third character, one of the world's first psychoanalysts, plays a key role in explicating the connection shared by the two men, as well as the hubris that led to their falling out. By exploring that shared drama, Cronenberg arrives at tensions between instinct and rationality that, in retrospect, his movies have touched on since the beginning. "A Dangerous Method" is his therapy, too.
A patient of Jung's suffering from extreme hysteria, Spielrein eventually becomes the young doctor's paramour in a scandalous affair that she treats as extended therapy for the abuse she received as a child. Jung's inability to overcome his urge to sleep with Spielrein allows Freud to condescend to his colleague, a selfish behavior that casts doubt on the older Freud's seemingly airtight theories.
Initially viewing Jung as the torchbearer for the next generation of psychoanalytic theory, Freud eventually loses respect for the doctor on both personal and professional grounds. Jung, meanwhile, grows disdainful of Freud's emphasis on repressed sexual desires as the answer for everything. Jung's decision to consider new treatments and move beyond a closed system of Freudian psychoanalysis mirrors the constant grappling between tangible and irrational behavior in so many Cronenberg movies — exactly what makes him such a first-rate storyteller.
Michael Fassbender portrays Jung with a complicated stare that hints at the constant moral struggle taking place behind it. Viggo Mortensen buries himself in Freud's skin, both inhabiting the cigar-chomping character's iconography while showing how the man strove to maintain it. Between these two muted performances, however, Keira Knightley bursts through with an intense turn as Spielrein, a woman equally capable of using her sexual prowess and her intellect to manipulate Jung into falling in love with her. The movie arrives at point where two human beings fully cognizant of their destructive behaviors neverthess become slaves to them before dealing with the inevitable fallout.
Cronenberg didn't create this dynamic, but the way "A Dangerous Method" deals with unspoken cravings provides a handy foundation for his entire filmography. Beyond that initial gateway, the next steps are his last two movies, "Eastern Promises" and "A History of Violence," a double bill of subtle, elegant thrillers about unreliable appearances (both of which, like "A Dangerous Method," involve Mortensen performances).
Get past those entry points to arrive at the alternately queasy and cerebral output of Cronenberg's '90s period, a decade of more abstract, unsettling looks at distinctly personal struggles: Drug addiction ("Naked Lunch"), morbid fetishes ("Crash"), gender confusion ("M. Butterfly"), solipsism ("eXistenZ"). That will you lead to the lurid body horror of the '70s and '80s, a collection of nightmarish experiences ranging from "Rabid" and "Scanners" to "The Fly" that unleash the repressed frustrations in "A Dangerous Method" with frightening physicality.
In the new movie, when Freud asserts that "a little neurosis is nothing to be ashamed of," he provides a potential tagline for practically all Cronenberg movies at once. And there's his counterpart: In the movie's final shot, Jung's confidence crumbles and he looks supremely troubled, still uncertain of a world he once believed could be explained with textual prowess. Better than any analysis, his expression sums up the dangerous method at the heart of every Cronenberg movie.
criticWIRE grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Although incredibly verbose and understated, the combination of Cronenberg's auteur status and the starry cast will certainly help raise the movie's profile as it hits theaters in limited release this weekend. Sony Pictures Classics has smartly marketed the movie to educated adult viewers, which should make it stand out in a crowded holiday marketplace.