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A Dangerous Method

Movie Review


Published January 25, 2012 at 10:31 a.m.

In David Cronenberg’s latest film, Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen play Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. Ed Harris costars as a one-eyed Victorian miscreant who threatens to besmirch their reputations by revealing their violent criminal pasts.

You wish. What I wouldn’t have given, as I watched this mercilessly dry chronicle of psychoanalysis’ birth, for somebody’s head to explode, or for one of the characters to turn into a fly. I would’ve settled for an evil twin. A knife fight with male frontal nudity might have proved tricky to work in, but definitely would have livened things up.

Unfortunately, the director’s trademark touches are nowhere on display in A Dangerous Method, a movie so snoozy it makes your typical Merchant Ivory costume drama look like Fast Five. Which is something of a bummer for fans of the Canadian horror maestro, coming off A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007), two of the finest films of his career. Those pictures ushered in a new period of maturity in Cronenberg’s work. This one heralds something more suggestive of senility.

It’s hard to imagine what he could have been thinking when he decided to make a movie based on Christopher Hampton’s 2003 play The Talking Cure. Nothing screams big-screen excitement like a super-gabby theater piece that explores the relationship between two giants of psychology by having them read long letters from each other and discuss their dreams for an hour and a half (“Now this log ... perhaps you should entertain the possibility that it represents the penis”).

The closest the film comes to horror is in an early scene where a hysterical young Russian woman named Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) arrives by carriage at the Burghölzli Hospital in Zürich for treatment by Jung. Howling, cackling, bugging her eyes and flailing her arms, she’s the picture of insanity. Knightley juts her jaw so far forward she reminded me of the creature in Alien. Some reviewers have accused her of overacting. Others haven’t seen the movie yet.

Anyhoo, after a few chats with Jung she’s not only calm and composed but well on her way to becoming a psychoanalyst herself. This guy is good. Employing Freud’s revolutionary approach, he questions her about her childhood and discovers that she experienced sexual arousal when her father disciplined her. The good doctor soon succumbs to her advances and begins a kinky affair. Apparently, he wanted to test his theory about a revolutionary spanking cure.

You know your movie is set in Dullsville when multiple scenes featuring Fassbender spanking and whipping an appreciative Knightley do nothing to enliven the proceedings. That’s how inert the interplay between the main characters is. As Freud, Mortensen seems almost comically out of his element. Sporting a beard, a cigar surgically attached to his hand, he blathers pedantically about the future of the field he founded and initially welcomes Jung into his fold, believing that a wealthy Protestant will make a valuable emissary for a movement facing anti-Semitism in Vienna.

The blossoming bromance is threatened, however, when Jung questions his mentor’s insistence that sexual repression underlies all mental illness. I’m not kidding. That’s as dramatic as the story gets. I kept telling myself to be patient, that something Cronenbergian would happen any second, that the nonstop ho-hum yakking was just a setup for a masterful twist. But no such luck.

Dandy costumes. Gorgeous camera work. Anyone claiming that this dialogue-heavy dud has anything more going for it should have their head examined.

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