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Retrospective: The Films Of David Cronenberg

Retrospective: The Films Of David Cronenberg

It’s been a long journey to “respectability” for David Cronenberg. In the early days of his career, the helmer was a favorite of the Fangoria crowd, crafting genre entertainment that relied heavily on nightmarish prosthetics to sugar (or rather, gore) -coat the elemental, sometimes philosophical ideas he was preoccupied with. Many of these ideas are captured succinctly in early-year masterpiece “Videodrome”: we are but slaves to our outer sheaths, mutation is the only real evolution and matters of the heart are merely an illusion, while the mind’s fragility and propensity to conflate reality with dreams or hallucinations will always make it ultimately subservient to the desires of the flesh. Pit logic against the darker recesses of human nature, he suggests, and logic, control and intellectualism will always fail.

Which is ironic, considering one the most frequently leveled accusations by Cronenberg’s detractors is that his films are entirely too passionless, too intellectual, and too clinical in their emotional detachment. And this criticism is not without some basis: sympathetic characters are few and far between in the director’s oeuvre (there are very few puppies in Cronenberg), and if we identify with anyone it’s usually reluctantly, perhaps recognizing in them some of the uglier aspects of ourselves that we’d rather not think about. And that’s precisely the point: his is a cinema of discomfort, of unease, which is why he found his greatest early success in the horror genre, where audiences pay to be challenged viscerally, and if you can slip in some psychological shocks amid things going splat in the night, all the better. But now that he is reaching ever wider audiences with seemingly more and more accessible films, where do those concerns go? Has he simply sold them up the Swanee for the chance to work with R-Patz, or has horror’s great intellectual channeled his formidable smarts into finding more subversive ways to further his creative theses? As a filmmaker, has he evolved, or has he mutated?

It’s probably obvious which side of the fence we’re on, but with his latest, “A Dangerous Method,” in theaters tomorrow, we delve into the back catalog of the man who came from whips and chains on Civic TV, to the Lincoln Center stage for the New York Film Festival, so that you can judge for yourselves.

Stereo” (1969)
Cronenberg’s debut feature, “Stereo,” which purports to be an education science video sponsored by a large plastics conglomerate (yes, he was a giant weirdo from the very beginning), shows the filmmaker as the clinical intellectual that his critics often unfairly label him — it turns out that, this time, they’re right. The “plot” of this black-and-white oddity concerns a nameless hero (Ronald Mlodzik, a frequent Cronenberg collaborator) who is brought to a compound to take part in a series of experiments wherein sexual activity is meant to bring out inherent psychic abilities. While the underlying thematic material matches up nicely to later Cronenberg works (“The Brood,” “Scanners,” and “Shivers“), “Stereo” is undone by lengthy narration that adds a level of authenticity but makes your head spin (and not in a good way). But for completists, its a glimpse of the filmmaker-in-gestation, before he learned how to blow our minds via the perfect balance of kinky ideas and oversized entertainment. [C]

Crimes of the Future” (1970)
Like “Stereo,” “Crimes of the Feature” is about an hour long and features spell check-resistant actor Ronald Mlodzik. It also, like “Stereo,” was shot silently, with narration and various sound effects added after the fact. This time, though, it’s in color! Mlodzik plays Adrian Tripod, the director of a dermatological clinic with the strip-clubby name The House of Skin. Tripod is searching for his mentor in a post-apocalyptic wasteland wherein all sexually mature women have been wiped off the face of the earth thanks to deadly cosmetic products. Cronenberg shows us this gradually, first as a man paints another man’s fingernails, but later things become more gross and, well, Cronenbergian, with a man who grows modified organs in his body, only to have them removed, in a grotesque simulation of childbirth, not to mention these men also produce a weird foam that must be siphoned from their bodies. “Crimes of the Future”‘s greatest similarity to “Stereo,” though, is that it’s too heady and weird to be truly engaging; ideas-wise it’s a trip, but sitting through it, even at an hour, is a slog. [C]

Shivers” (1975)
People talk of cinema as a populist medium that humans escape into to forget the banalities of their dull, quotidian existence. But for David Cronenberg, a lapsed biochemistry major who switched to English and drifted into cinema before, to some minds, conquering it, escapism has never been at the forefront of his mind. Instead, the director’s commitment to penetrating and confronting the darkest impulses of his audience’s imaginations manifests itself in films that probe the human psyche; both psychologically and–more crucially–with physical violence. Nowhere is this truer than in “Shivers,” his first commercial feature, conceived of as the “Orgy of the Blood Parasites” or “The Parasite Murders,” and sometimes known as “They Came from Within.” It’s a little film with grand intentions, his “Mean Streets”–a crystallization of later thematic concerns (“even old flesh is erotic flesh”), with an uncommon and unsettling stylistic verve that hasn’t lessened in the three decades since its release. Culled from an image in the director’s head (a spider emerging from a sleeping woman’s mouth) the thrust of the film prefigures Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” and caused a minor scandal upon its initial release in Canada, funded as it was on the taxpayer’s dime. It’s barmy and sociologically-minded plot, involving engorged parasites that are simultaneously an aphrodisiac and an STI messing with the middle class residents of Starliner Towers, may meander like a creaking Jalopy with amateurish acting performances, but when the history of cinema is written with Cronenberg as one of its key practitioners, “Shivers” will no doubt remain one of his most profoundly weird, disturbing and totemic texts. [A-]

Rabid” (1977)
This early, low-budget, but quite effective fourth film from Cronenberg is notable for several reasons, mainly as a blueprint, of sorts, for better films he’d go on to make in the near future (it could be said to feature the balance of the micro/macro apocalypse of “Scanners,” leading to the weird sexual politics of “Videodrome” and then to the genre and makeup/gore of “The Fly”). His take on the vampire and zombie genres (a year before Romero would return to zombies with “Dawn of the Dead”) is unique, and pure, bizarre Cronenberg: a woman (Marilyn Chambers, serviceable in the role) receives life-saving/altering skin grafts at a pseudo-idyllic plastic surgery clinic, which also creates a phallic stinger under her armpit (why not, right?) that lives off blood and turns her victims in to rabid zombies whose bites spread the disease. It’s the second film of Cronenberg’s produced by a pre-“Animal HouseIvan Reitman, who, legend has it, had the idea to cast porn star Chambers after the studio shot down Cronenberg’s first choice for the role, Sissy Spacek. While by no means a great film, “Rabid” is still pretty damn good. Its subversive, satirical take on plastic surgery and its effects on a lazy, quick-fix society, is pointed and ahead of its time (it’s pretty amazing how common this is in the Canadian director’s oeuvre, especially his ‘70s and ‘80s period) and the ending is a satisfying, tragic and totally earned downer. [B]

Fast Company” (1979)
While “Fast Company” remains–as a brightly colored action-drama about professional drag racers–an anomaly in the Cronenberg canon, it’s still a key text for any devotee of the auteur. For one thing, it united Cronenberg with a number of people who would go on to become frequent creative collaborators (most notably cinematographer Mark Irwin and production designer Carol Spier), and for another, because it’s the first exploration of Cronenberg’s personal love for automobiles and car culture. You can feel the director’s fascination with the material in his almost documentary-like approach to capturing these vehicles on the screen–the crackle of the engine and the tremble of the cockpit; it borders on obsessive. Cronenberg, who, on the commentary track, describes the film loosely as a “tone piece,” plays up its archetypal western imagery despite its Canadian setting. “Fast Company” is an essential oddity for fans, fun and breezy and filled with B-movie actors (including John Saxon) and one Playboy Playmate of the Year (Claudia Jennings, who died tragically in a car accident a few months after filming the movie); its charming banality makes it all the more bizarre. [B+]

The Brood” (1979)
Cronenberg has never been as personal (or as brutal) as he is in the squishy-squirmy allegory “The Brood,” which he made during a prolonged and painful child custody battle following his divorce from his first wife. The movie concerns an experimental psychotherapy technique that Dr. Raglan (Oliver Reed, mercifully light on the ham) is pioneering. His primary client is Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggar) who is going through a divorce from her husband Frank (Art Hindle) and struggling for custody of their young daughter Candice (Cindy Hinds). When Candice shows up with bruises, Frank suspects Nola and Raglan of something untoward. But what’s more untoward is the band of dwarfish creatures that skitters onto the screen and quickly dispenses with Candice’s grandmother (among others). These creatures, less than knee-high and absolutely vicious, are some of the most terrifying and often-overlooked creatures Cronenberg has ever dreamed (nightmared?) up, a batch of demons literally born from rage. Like all of the director’s most uncanny creations, they work both metaphorically and viscerally – there’s an emotional gut-punch that accompanies the sheer terror. The finale, which features (spoiler – and vomit – alert) Eggar birthing one of the creatures, tearing open its embryonic sack, and licking the little creature clean, is an operatic high in the outré Cronenberg oeuvre. [A-] 

Scanners” (1981)
Even in more of a blockbuster mode, Cronenberg remains distinctly Cronenbergian. “Scanners,” a genuine full-throttle b-thriller, deals with an underground society of telepaths developing the ability to alter the world through the mutation of their own minds. While there are plenty of pyrotechnics saved for the special effects sequences (including a head-exploding scene that has, in some ways, outlived the movie), Cronenberg seems less frightened and more fascinated by this twisted take on the potential next phase of evolution. Being the earlier iteration of Cronenberg, he also can’t resist the lure of a good prosthetic, leading to a number of visual freakouts. “Scanners” never focuses its curiosity into a coherent idea about evolution, making the picture more of a tantalizing what-if for ideas that would skew in a more academic direction with Cronenberg’s next film (“Videodrome“), but as far as cheap schlock thrills go, it was matched by very few in the early ’80s, mostly thanks to a career-defining performance by Michael Ironside as the villainous Darryl Revok. It’s an often intense experience, but the film’s lasting impact stems from the superficial absurdities of the project more than from any particular directorial thesis. [B-]

Videodrome” (1983)
Marking the end of the opening chapter of Cronenberg’s many-phased career, “Videodrome” is a near-perfect early encapsulation of many concerns that crop up time and again for the filmmaker: the body vs. the mind, illusion vs. reality, and the seductive, erotic power of technology. And as such it still works like a key that unlocks his filmography: it may be the most Cronenbergian Cronenberg film. It also perhaps marks the first time the director struck a convincing balance between the body-horror genre he was working within, and the sublimely chilly cerebrality of his tone: even as guns graft, claw-like onto bone (prefiguring the much less successful “eXistenZ“), and our protagonist grapples with his disintegrating reality, and Debbie Harry writhes in pleasure at a self-inflicted cigarette burn, the film remains cool to the touch, emotionally. This intellectual remove could make proceedings less visceral, and yet that tightrope is walked with characteristic intelligence (like or loathe his films, there is no doubt Cronenberg is crazy smart). Prescient to the point of clairvoyance, yet entirely of its period too (Betamax!) the story of sleaze merchant Max’s (James Woods) descent into techo-induced madness and mind control somehow manages to reward even more in light of the work that would come later. Dated, current and futuristic all at once, “Videodrome” was then, is now and will always be, terrific. Long live the new flesh, indeed. [A]

The Dead Zone” (1983)
After the disturbing and odd “Videodrome” (released the same year), Cronenberg retreated to the relatively safe world of the big-budget Hollywood thriller, adapting a nifty little Stephen King novel called “The Dead Zone.” Christopher Walken (in a performance King frequently cites as the best of the actor’s long and varied career) plays Johnny Smith, a small town teacher who, after an accident and ensuing coma, wakes up with new-found psychic abilities with which insights from a person’s future can be transferred to him via touch. Jeffrey Boam‘s tight script condenses much of the novel while still delivering an appropriate amount of scope and otherworldly dread (an interlude where Smith assists a cop, played by Tom Skerritt, is particularly haunting). Martin Sheen, too, adds a dash of charming menace as a political candidate exposed by Smith’s abilities as a power-mad zealot (he portrays him not unlike then-president Reagan…). The stakes may be high, but the movie’s headier themes (it directly asks under what circumstances a political assassination might be morally justified) leave less of an impact than its strong emotional undercurrents. When Smith wakes up and finds that the love of his life (Brooke Adams) is married and has a child, you can’t help but get choked up – a rare occurrence at a Cronenberg movie up to this point (unless you were choking back something other than tears). Here, the lump in your throat nicely accompanies the chills down your spine. [A-]

The Fly” (1986)
Though it seems today like we live in an age of excessive remakes, it’s not as if this is something new to Hollywood. Like theater, popular films and good films are constantly re-imagined, re-contextualized and re-fashioned for a newer generation. But with “The Fly,” David Cronenberg clearly understood, as did John Carpenter with his “The Thing” remake, two of the more salient ingredients of a successful re-do. Another take on a movie that has at least the kernel of a good idea that perhaps turned out not so great in the first place, or has become dated in the years since, is always welcome, and can prove to be a place of considerable advantage for a filmmaker. Also, and this is a biggie, like a good cover song, a good remake is one that’s distinctively different from its predecessor(s), one with its own DNA and fingerprints. Like “The Thing,” which came out four years prior to Cronenberg’s brilliant re-envisioning, “The Fly” is a makeup, prosthetics and special effect gore enthusiast’s wet dream (Chris Walas and Stephan Dupuis won the Oscar for the makeup), slowly building towards a tragic conclusion that sees the master of body horror pull out all the stops. Wanna give a pregnant woman nightmares for months? Show her the larva birthing scene, itself a nightmare within the film. Upon catching up with the film again for the first time in many years, this writer was pleased to discover a tightly scripted romantic drama, using a classic three-act structure and containing perhaps Jeff Goldblum’s greatest performance (seriously, how was he not nominated for an Oscar here?). In the lead, as Seth Brundle, and eventually Brundle Fly, the lanky, odd but utterly captivating thespian has multiple degrees of difficulty to balance, believably going from sweet geek genius to hot-shot asshole and finally to grotesque freak. And Cronenberg, never one to shy away from sly, often funny social commentary in his work, adds layers of subtext (AIDS, male insecurity, abortion rights, etc.) while also showing an understanding of women (in many ways, this is a feminist horror movie) that is rare in a male director. That he does all this in a romantic, disgusting, scary and touchingly sad piece of mainstream entertainment is worthy of high praise. [A]

Dead Ringers” (1988)
Inspired by the stranger-than-fiction (unless that fiction is Cronenberg’s) story of real-life twin gynecologists, this disturbing film tempers the director’s long-running body horror fascination with some of the more psychological and philosophical conundrums of the human experience. Protagonists Elliot and Beverly Mantle (both played by Jeremy Irons), identical twins so close they are almost one person, share literally everything and take to impersonating each other as it suits them, which leads to decidedly unethical situations both in their medical practice and their personal lives. Though one is slightly more sensitive and recalcitrant than the other, they both, like many Cronenberg “heroes,” lack basic emotional intelligence, something which, coupled with their chosen field of gynecology, allows them to take hideous advantage of women at their most vulnerable. Its not until a woman comes between them (graphically symbolized in a vivid dream of said woman attempting to chew though the fleshy umbilical cord that binds the twins in their symbiotic existence) that things start to fall apart. Mostly taking a break from the gross-out prosthetics of “The Fly“, “Dead Ringers” was Cronenberg at his most restrained, served well by the aristocratic Jeremy Irons, whose masterful double performance, enabled by motion control camerawork, allows the audience to tell the identical twins apart, most of the time, by mannerisms alone. The role was initially turned down by Robert De Niro and William Hurt before it fell to Irons, whose dry-as-a-bone delivery makes it uniquely disturbing as well as darkly funny, and though he didn’t win the Academy Award that year, he was savvy enough to thank Cronenberg in his acceptance speech when he won the following year for “Reversal of Fortune.” “Dead Ringers” was also Cronenberg’s first collaboration with future longtime cohort, cinematographer Peter Suchitzky, whose starkly colored vision works beautifully with Cronenberg’s own. [A-]

Naked Lunch” (1991)
Cronenberg’s attempt to film the unfilmmable, “Naked Lunch” is his adaption of Beat writer William Burroughs‘ most famous work. He had shown interest in an adaptation back in 1981, but it wasn’t until he met producer Jeremy Thomas, and later Burroughs himself, that the project got off the ground. However, realizing that a faithful, authentic adaptation would be banned around the world and cost hundred of millions to make, Cronenberg had to find a different way of exploring Burroughs’ work. In the process he gave free rein to his own fascination with the grotesque and his knack for finding the funny in it all, exploring that deeply fucked-up world by combining the text with major events from Burroughs’ own life and pieces from other works of his, like “Exterminator!,” “Queer,” and “Letters to Allen Ginsberg.” Protagonist Bill Lee (the Burroughs surrogate, played by Peter Weller) is an exterminator who gets high on bug powder, to which his wife (Judy Davis) is also addicted. Together Davis and Weller both deliver droll performances, until the notorious true-to-Burroughs William Tell scene is replayed, Bill is plunged into the hallucinogenic world of the Interzone, and bizarre-noir adventures spring forth. Clark Nova, the infamous typewriter bug who talks out of a butthole, is one of the film’s best devices, addressing both the latent homosexuality of his protagonist and the catharsis of the creative process in one foul, fell swoop, and the collaboration between Ornette Coleman and Howard Shore (Shore has scored all of Cronenberg’s films, bar “The Dead Zone“) creates an eccentric noir score that keeps the crazy pulp vibe going. Shame, then, that it never comes together into anything like coherence: the director didn’t make his name with easy watches, but this is near impenetrable. As a grandly ambitious failure, however, it is still somewhat admirable; a case of the director aiming high and falling short, but leaving some fascinating artifacts in the debris. Even at his worst, Cronenberg is more interesting than most. [B-]

M. Butterfly” (1993)
With Cronenberg’s controlled and conventional period piece “A Dangerous Method” about to hit theaters, now’s the perfect opportunity to discuss “M. Butterfly,” a film not unlike ‘Method’ in form and execution. Set in 1960s China, where a French diplomat (played by Jeremy Irons) falls in love with an opera singer, “M. Butterfly,” is essentially a straightforward romantic drama, and as the follow-up picture to “Naked Lunch” (and/or just compared to his body-horror-filled oeuvre) it is perhaps one of the strangest films he’s ever made, considering how “normal” it is. Of course there’s a major twist in the plot that gives it lots of sexually transgressive overtones that you won’t find in your average drama, but in approach it is simple, unvarnished and mostly unweird — in a way it must have been a brave move for the filmmaker at the time. Unfortunately time hasn’t been kind to the film, and it wasn’t exactly beloved on first release. John Lone can be spotted a mile away, the political subtext of the picture is lukewarm, and while Irons’ longing, sexual repression and unrequited desire act isn’t as overwrought as it in Louis Malle‘s lust drama “Damages,” it is, at times, a picture that’s hard to take seriously. Also, all British actors playing Frenchmen? An unfortunate choice, but we suppose one indicative of North American-made period pieces from the ‘90s. Cronenberg’s tragic portrait of doomed love, betrayal and forbidden desire, is a decidely restrained left turn and in that sense should be admired — there’s nothing worse than a director who never changes (see Tim Burton…). But while the picture attempts to convey a desperate passion that defies social norms and good judgement alike (Irons’ character ultimately loses everything because of his indiscretions), it never quite hits the moving mark. And, unleavened by the usual Cronenbergian flashes of deliberate humor, dark or otherwise, it even comes across as unintentionally amusing at times. [C]

Crash” (1996)
 Was ever a novelist more perfectly paired with a director than JG Ballard with David Cronenberg? It’s hard to imagine anyone else could have approached the author’s demented 1973 story of car crash fetishism and creepy celebrity worship, and actually taken it further, turning it into a chilling portrayal of premillenial angst as manifested in an eroticized technophilia. But Cronenberg’s instinct for this material is innate, and he makes out of this ‘only from Ballard’ story an unmistakably Cronenberg film. Reviled and banned in some territories on release, with its graphic depictions of violence and sex, in particular the bit where… how to put this delicately… where James Spader fucks Rosanna Arquette‘s leg wound, “Crash” is certainly not for everyone (and we can’t but smile at the thought of some great-aunt renting the DVD when they wanted the trite Best Picture winner of the same name — it has to have happened, right?). But for fans of both Cronenberg and Ballard, and really anyone with an adult interest in what our ever-increasing obsession with technology might be doing to our relationships and to our psyches (to our souls, perhaps), it is vital, riveting filmmaking. Holly Hunter and Elias Koteas, especially, give great turns and Spader is perfect as another of Cronenberg’s cold, creepy protagonists (see Woods, Irons, Weller, and more latterly, Mortensen). But this is a film of ideas, some ugly, some profound, all disquieting, and the film pulsates with such perverse intelligence that those ideas don’t so much stay with you, as chase you out of the theater, across the parking lot…and into your car, which may not seem quite the same machine it was a couple of hours before. [A]

eXistenZ” (1999)
The tail-end of the 1990s was rammed full of fin-de-siècle genre pictures dealing with the apparently synthetic nature of our existence. They ranged from the sublime (“Dark City“) to the ones of variable quality starring Keanu Reeves (“The Matrix,” “Johnny Mnemonic“), so it’s easy to dismiss this effort from Cronenberg as lightweight pootling, maybe in the vein of farces like “The Lawnmower Man,” before his more straightforwardly ‘serious’ run with Viggo Mortensen was to begin in earnest. But “eXistenZ,” though undeniably flawed, is a delirious, prophetic romp, foreshadowing the human propensity to be enlivened and/or enervated by the apparent blanket atomization wrought by the internet – it’s “Videodrome” for the “Call of Duty” generation. It’s also run through with a disarming self-reflexive streak: one of the characters triumphantly bellows “Death to realism!” before flambéing a videogame console made from mutated amphibians, while Willem Dafoe is challenged with “Don’t you ever go to the fucking movies?” before having his throat blasted out with a cattle-gun. Jennifer Jason Leigh gives a rare – and welcome – leading role as “game-pod goddess” Allegra Geller who must enter into her own game, eXistenZ, to prevent its “meta-flesh” from becoming contaminated, with only a deliberately hammy and simpering Jude Law, playing a green marketing trainee with a phobia of having his body “penetrated surgically,” for company. With a production design boasting a “hamster factor” only a touch shy of Terry Gilliam’s famous fastidiousness (fast food packaging comes from a joint called “Perky Pat’s”) the film wears its age surprisingly well.  [B+]

Spider” (2002)
An outlier in the Cronenberg oeuvre, “Spider” was neither a critical darling (despite Amy Taubin‘s frequent raves) nor an esoteric audience favorite. Nearly a decade after its release, it resides in a mostly forgotten gray area, a rarity for a director who elicits such passionate loyalty from his fans. It’s a shame, too, because “Spider” is good. Like, really good. Predating Ralph Fiennes’ recent career renaissance, he plays a man recently released from a mental institution who glides through life without speaking, haunted by the past. It’s been described by critics as a detective film where the investigator, perpetrator and victim are all inside the head of the same person, and Cronenberg, with frequent collaborators composer Howard Shore and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, creates an atmosphere rich with dread and psychological unease. Reality and fantasy, past and present (Miranda Richardson and Gabriel Byrne appear as Fiennes’ parents), toggle back and forth and end up blurring together in one of the director’s most disturbingly real-world chillers. While it doesn’t sit altogether comfortably in any of the categories Cronenberg spans, it is more than simply a marker between his last phase and his newest: as a transitional film between the old-favorite body horror concerns of “eXistenZ,” and the dawning of the new more accessible, Viggo-led chapter, it’s ripe to be rediscovered by adventurous viewers. [B+]

A History Of Violence” (2005)
Considered, if not a return to form for Cronenberg, then the discovery of an entirely new form, “A History of Violence” is his first teaming with Viggo Mortenson, who plays Tom Stall, a small town family man with a hidden past. The film truly simmers with tension, erupting into violence in the second half, but haunted by its possibility all the way through, as family man Tom, married to Edie (Maria Bello) gains an unwanted spotlight as the town hero after he successfully defends his diner from thieves, who he kills with chilling ease. The repercussions of this event raise old ghosts from the grave of the past, (Ed Harris and an Oscar-nominated William Hurt are terrific in supporting roles as Tom’s nemesis and brother, respectively). Josh Olson’s screenplay really plays up the B-movie, gritty pulp aspect Cronenberg is going for, but this is Mortensen’s show: suggesting so much going on beneath a frozen surface, he makes even silences feel thunderous. Before this, Cronenberg was most famous for his science-fiction/horror flicks, but here he, like his protagonist, turns away from the excesses of his past, channeling his interests instead into a taut, yet resolutely real-world story. As a psychological, sometimes melodramatic investigation of the effect on violence on its victims, its perpetrators and those who, despite trying to run from it, find it their natural state, it is a fantastically controlled and compelling performance piece. And if the anticlimactic ending may leave us just a trifle unfulfilled, it’s a minor quibble: as a signal of a new direction for the filmmaker, it is remarkably assured and complete. [A-]

Eastern Promises” (2007)
After tentatively stepping into mainstream territory with “A History of Violence,” Cronenberg consolidated that move with the again-almost-straightforward crime thriller “Eastern Promises.” What’s perhaps surprising is how successful the film is on its own terms. While some of the director’s trademark concerns are in evidence (bodies, and their mutilation, still fascinate, be it through tattoos, the stubbing of a cigarette on a tongue, the dispassionate dissection of a corpse or the roiling, writhing, inordinately fleshy, naked fight in the steam room), here they are relegated to character background or incidental action; they don’t inform the main thrust of the plot. Instead we get an engrossing, well-researched, low-key mafia movie, only here the city is London and the Mafia is Russian. And in Naomi Watts‘ midwife, dogged in her mission to solve the mystery of a young girl who died in her care, we are given possibly the first Cronenberg protagonist since “The Dead Zone“‘s Christopher Walken who we are actively encouraged to like. But it’s Mortensen who steals the show (though Armin Mueller-Stahl and Vincent Cassel both give him a run for his money). His Nikolai is a mass of contradictions and moral conundrums, marshaled into a conflicted but frighteningly disciplined killer: it’s a character we’re happy we’re going to see more of, if the mooted sequel happens. Yes, there are those who lament the evolution of the Cronenberg movie from the cerebral schlock of yesteryear to the brainy accessibility of today, but on this evidence, we’re happy to follow him wherever he leads. [A-]

A Dangerous Method” (2011)
So somewhere along the way, the David Cronenberg of earlier years, while pursuing his pet ideas and concepts, and in the process producing often-unforgettable genre classics, became a truly dynamic storyteller, something that critics often overlook. In “A Dangerous Method,” he employs all of that flair, twisting and tweaking the structure of this curious psychodrama in ways no other director would approach. As a result, Cronenberg excels in depicting the professional tensions between Carl Jung and his mentor Sigmund Freud, and Jung’s own flirtation with student/patient Sabina Spielrein. He juxtaposes the straight-laced nervousness of Jung, the cigar-chewing (natch) boldness of Freud and the bedroom dysfunction of the genuinely tortured Spielrien. But he’s also having a wry laugh at the proceedings, depicting Freud as a psychological bully who treats everyone as his test subjects, and Jung as the whimsical genius who starts to credit his own mind-powers almost as a reflexive response to Freud’s subtle bullying. “A Dangerous Method” has divided Cronenberg fans precisely because of this formal playfulness, vacilating between the dry routine of men in suits in smoking rooms and the twisted kink of a wooden rod against Keira Knightley‘s attractive backside. But “A Dangerous Method” is more a synthesis of Cronenberg the mature storyteller and Cronenberg the horror maestro than its period trappings might suggest: once again, he is exploring the horrors of the body (Jung is almost repulsed by his own longings) in a way both subtle and perversely overt. Whether that synthesis spices up a conventional, talky period drama, or simply renders the film less successful as a period drama, is a debate that rages on. [B+]

— Gabe Toro, Drew Taylor, Rodrigo Perez, Sam Price, Erik McLanahan, Jessica Kiang, Sam Chater, 

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