David Cronenberg Allows His Actors’ Methods to Shine
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Danger has been a factor in the recent films of David Cronenberg, but the tension and anxiety has been focused on the physical, the threat of bodily harm and the need to determine where said harm would originate. Would the fatal treacherous blow be delivered by the ordinary father and local shopkeeper hiding a dark and deadly past, full of buried secrets and even more bodies, as in the 2005 release A History of Violence, or would the danger arise from actions that run counter to most basic character of a Russian mob enforcer who finds himself taking on the role of protector, as in the 2007 release Eastern Promises?
The common thread in each case, besides Cronenberg, is the onscreen instrument of danger, localized in the person of Viggo Mortensen, the actor/Renaissance man who embodies a roguish intensity that is always one step (in any direction) away from a fall over the edge into the abyss. And so it is fitting that Mortensen is back for another round with Cronenberg, even though this time the danger is not physical. Rather it is about the methods employed to expose the vulnerabilities of the mind and psyche. To further twist and undermine our expectations, this devious duo seemingly displaces the threat of danger onto Michael Fassbender, an actor who, like Mortensen, possesses the same devilish charisma.
In A Dangerous Method, Fassbender plays a developing Carl Jung, engaging Sigmund Freud (Mortensen), the godfather of modern psychoanalysis, as a mentor. Mortensen huffs and puffs away on cigars and oozes his usual menace, but here it is intellect-based, a dry probing and sparring that keeps Fassbender’s Jung off-balance, in a field overloaded with fresh psychological bear traps waiting to be sprung. This is pure chess, a mental game that suddenly jumps from the mind first into the emotional realm and then quite vividly into the physical, sensual world.
The story lands with cat-like ferocity and grace in the form of Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), an unusual patient who by all accounts was incurable. Oversexed and beyond the mores of society, but with a beautiful razor-sharp mind of her own, Spielrein intrigues Jung. He sees her sex, the drive it inspires in her, yet deeper still he spots something of himself, a reflection of his own analytic theories, those that contrasted with Freud’s and triggered his ambition, his urge to break free from his mentor/father figure. The triangular entanglements — sexual, psychological and intellectual — are certainly mythic.
And so, obscured by all the smoke and deflection, Knightley stands as the linchpin, the true danger this time. As the center, she pushes herself out from what audiences have come to expect from her youth and thin beauty, which up to this point has been bound and corseted. Her Spielrein is a dark-eyed fury with a whip-snapping sexual nature that has never been captured like this before. Knightley is raw and naked, especially in scenes with Fassbender (who is no stranger to such displays), but she leaves everyone else exposed and vulnerable. Spielrein/Knightley seize control. Spielrein lasers in her mental focus, while Knightley sinks her teeth into every available morsel in the frame and refuses to let go. Knightley joins the likes of Elizabeth Olsen and Kirsten Dunst, young actresses who, during the past year, found methods to move themselves out of the pretty It-girl roles and into stark and startling new challenges, the kind of character studies usually reserved for older actresses or actors like Mortensen and Fassbender.
It is encouraging to see A Dangerous Method, possibly as a first attempt at creating a bond between an actress and director that could rival that of Cronenberg/Mortensen, or a classic example like Scorsese/De Niro. If anyone could devise a method to bring that about, it would be Cronenberg, and Knightley sure seems game enough to play along.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com