One of the pleasures of watching a David Cronenberg film is the guarantee that something nasty will happen. The violence in his films lurks beneath the surface, hinted at in the cold, clinical dialogue uttered by his characters.
When the violence finally bursts on-screen—via an exploding head, a scientific accident or a knife to the gut—it's often more horrific than our own worst imaginings. It's also unavoidable and intrinsic to the plot. Everything relates in a Cronenberg story: the sex, the violence, the words, the silence. There's no gratuitous Saw- or Hostel-type stuff.
Imagine, then, a Cronenberg film with no on-screen violence and lots of talking. (So. Much. Talking.) That film is called A Dangerous Method, and it's as dry as all hell.
The subject matter—the professional and personal relationships of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and one of Jung's patients, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), during the dawn of talk therapy and psychoanalysis—is in Cronenberg's wheelhouse, with all the sex, violence and talk that implies. An auteur of human biology and psychology such as Cronenberg could do wonders with it.
Unfortunately, we never get beyond talk. Spielrein arrives, screaming, at Jung's Swiss sanitarium in 1904, jaw jutting forward, body writhing, a mess of mania and compulsion. Later, she's before Jung (literally—he sits behind her), as he suggests her therapy consist mostly of talking sessions designed to get to the root of her problem. Of course, her problem is rooted in sex and shame. Of course, she quickly recovers. Of course, she wishes to study psychoanalysis. Of course, she and Jung become lovers. Of course, he advises her on her dissertation. Of course, it's all easy to predict, even if one doesn't know the players' histories.
Worse, Jung and Spielrein's relationship comes off as completely perfunctory, a series of scenes that play out with a feeling of "…and then this happened…" as a means to get to…what, the end of the movie?
Even Mortensen, who is so good in Cronenberg's A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, can't rise above the flaccid material. He does his best, playing Freud as a judgmental and purposefully repressed older man, but that repression makes for some rather drab back-and-forth as he and Jung eventually fall out.
Freud thinks Jung will advance the theory of psychoanalysis. When he and Jung realize their theories diverge—Freud brings everything back to the penis, and Jung isn't sold on that notion—their professional relationship frays and eventually so does their personal relationship.
One compelling idea posited in the screenplay is Freud's focus on phallic imagery as a way to limit his detractors' attacks on him. If he has one theory, he thinks, through which to distill subsequent theories, other thinkers might find it difficult to accuse him of being a charlatan or an imbecile.
Unfortunately, that idea is a good moment within a string of talky moments. Each character experiences fear, suffering, rage and happiness, but it hardly matters because the screenplay doesn't do anything with those experiences. It's like an unsatisfying trip to the shrink.
A Dangerous Method
Directed by David Cronenberg
With Michael Fassbender, Viggo Mortensen and Keira Knightley