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On Movies: In 'Dangerous Method' Cronenberg shift to emotional violence

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 19, 2012 - "A Dangerous Method," the smart, subtle, carnage-free new movie about Sigmund Freud, his disciple Carl Jung and a woman patient who becomes Jung's lover, can be considered in one sense a departure for director David Cronenberg. He was once known as "the Baron of Blood" for his low-budget horror exploitation films, and he has never previously been shy about presenting graphic violence.

But in another sense, "A Dangerous Method" could be considered a logical extension of the Canadian director's long career of making movies about the Id. There's plenty of violence, but most of it is mental and emotional, not physical.

Cronenberg made his debut in 1975 with "Shivers," a grindhouse special about a parasite that turns men and women into sex-crazed, blood-thirsty rapists. Over the next decade, he followed with, among other assaults on domestic tranquility, "Rabid" (zombies), "The Brood" (mutants), and "Scanners" (exploding heads). Not so incidentally, "The Brood" also featured a crazy shrink who experimented with outlandish - and dangerous -- methods of psychotherapy.

By 1986, when Cronenberg turned Jeff Goldblum into a giant, pulsating housefly in "The Fly" - the scene in which Goldblum seemingly gives birth to an enormous maggot ranks as one of the ickiest ever filmed - it was clear that the filmmaker was up to more than just jump-starting the audience's adrenaline flow and triggering its collective gag reflex, although he did those things better than almost any director around.

Cronenberg, it now seems apparent, had themes. And one of his themes was the perfectly Freudian notion that a beast lurks inside of all of us, just waiting to pop out and do great bodily harm to ourselves and others. By 1996, with the release of "Crash" - about a secret society of people who take pleasure in injuring themselves in car wrecks - Cronenberg's movies were starting to show up in the art houses as well as the cineplexes and being intricately analyzed in the more erudite cinema magazines.

More recently, with higher profile movies like "A History of Violence" (2005), about a former tough guy who is unable to escape either his past or his nature, Cronenberg's films have begun appearing regularly on prominent ten-best lists and garnering nominations for post-season honors.

"A Dangerous Method" has a good shot at an Academy Award nomination or two (they'll be announced Jan. 24). Probably the best bet is Viggo Mortensen, who gives us a deliciously sardonic, eye-twinkling, fully three-dimensional Freud.

Mortensen's Freud watches with a combination of dismay and amusement as the younger, married Jung (Michael Fassbender) falls into a dangerous sexual relationship with a disturbed Russian woman in his care. Sabina (Keira Knightly) is a bundle of nerves who is driven by fear and self-loathing and an almost uncontrollable need for masochistic sex. Jung tries to justify to Freud his affair with his patient, although, as he clearly realizes, it goes against all the rules of the new art of psychoanalysis. Freud can only shake his head and try to nudge his self-justifying disciple in the right (i.e., Freudian) direction.

Eventually, Jung realizes he can no longer justify the affair, and officiously breaks off the relationship, with the predictable disastrous results on the fragile psyche of his patient. As he and Freud come to disagree more and more about the nature of mental illness, Jung also ends his Oedipal relationship with his mentor. That is a shame, if only because the interplay in the film between the two, always proceeding on at least two levels, is such an intellectual delight. (In the movie, at least, Freud turns out to be pretty much of a mensch; Jung, a cold fish, at least emotionally.)

The movie is based on a play (Christopher Hampton wrote both), and, unfortunately, sometimes it shows. Although Cronenberg makes good use of the countryside of Zurich (Jung) and Vienna (Freud) for some scenes, and the dialogue is often crisp and intellectually provocative, the film has its stagy moments, particularly when Knightly is pretending to be out of control with kinky passion or hysterical rage.

Keira Knightly may be more than adequate as a saucy, resourceful wench in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, and she was fine in "Pride and Prejudice," but she seemingly lacks the chops to play Sabina, a complicated, passionate, incredibly intelligent but sometimes out-of-control Russian woman way ahead of her time. I didn't believe a moment of Knightly's performance, and it sometimes drags down the movie as a whole.

The rest of the performers are fine, including French actor Vincent Cassel as a wealthy analyst who insists that sleeping with his unbalanced patients is part of the cure. Most importantly, "A Dangerous Method" humanizes and sheds considerable interpretive light on the development of a way of looking at the human psyche that dominated much of 20th century thought. It's worth seeing for Viggo Mortensen's wonderfully nuanced portrayal of Freud alone.

Opens Friday Jan. 20

'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close'

Movies about tragedies so immense they can be called up by a few quick syllables -- Katrina, Chernobyl -- are risky. The filmmakers are always in danger of seeming to trivialize or sentimentalize the actual event for the sake of a story, and that seems to be the problem with "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close."

The subject is 9/11 and its aftermath, and the main protagonist is a bright, fidgety 11-year-old boy named Oskar (Thomas Horn) whose father (Tom Hanks) died in the collapse of the Twin Towers. The boy is desperate for any connection to his father, and is going through his closet when he comes across an envelope with the word "black" written on it. Inside is a key.

He decides "black" is a last name. There are more than 400 people named Black in the New York city phone book, and Oskar spends months walking the five boroughs, fruitlessly asking people named Black if they knew his father. He refuses to take buses or the subway, so he walks, from his home on the Upper West Side to the South Bronx to Coney Island to the Battery and then home again. His aim is to see at least three people a day. This prodigious and potentially dangerous feat may have seemed reasonable -- or acceptably magical -- in the Jonathan Safran Foer novel on which the script is based, but Stephen Daldry's movie was filmed in the real (and immense -- 305 square miles) city of New York, and Oskar's odyssey seems simply impossible.

In what appears to be a sub-plot, Oskar also has found and keeps hidden a tape of his father's last phone messages from the towers. From time to time, he will play (essentially for us) a snippet of the tape, getting closer and closer to the final moments. The real suspense of the movie comes from withholding the father's last words until the climax. The search for someone named Black who knew Oskar's father turns out to be the real sub-plot, but most of the movie is taken up with it.

"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" benefits from a strong cast. Tom Hanks, seen in numerous flashbacks, and Sandra Bullock seem like perfect parents, convincingly warm and human and understanding, and newcomer Thomas Horn is excellent as the boy, words spilling out of his mouth, so obsessive he is even a bit irritating. But the two-pronged story just seems like something somebody made up.

Opens Friday Jan. 20

Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, is a special contributor to the Beacon. To reach him, contact Beacon features and commentary editor Donna Korando.

Harper Barnes
Harper Barnes' most recent book is Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement