A Dangerous Method (Cronenberg, 2011)

Soul Meets Body

The films of Canadian director David Cronenberg are a nasty brood, wildly divergent in terms of narrative yet thematically connected by the same obsession with the un(natural) evolution of body and mind. Initially known for constructing some of the 1970’s and 1980’s most harrowing and challenging genre films (ShiversScannersThe Fly), Cronenberg has since evolved toward a more classical, calculated form of storytelling in films like A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. Despite this shift, Cronenberg’s brilliantly subversive obsessions remain the same.

With A Dangerous Method, a sly and smart examination of the tumultuous Carl Jung/Sigmund Freud relationship during the early 1900’s, Cronenberg reaches the apex of this auteurist progression. His thematic concerns (deformity, disease, repression), once so brazenly represented by external violence or sex, are almost completely internalized in A Dangerous Method, revealed meticulously through longing facial expressions, razor-sharp glares, and extended dialogue sequences. Fittingly, there’s much time spent on the process of relationships, the way people’s perceptions of each other change over time …

Read my full review at SanDiego.com.

Best of the 2000’s: #7

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– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing series of essays written by Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.

For David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, the Western code of protection hasn’t died as much as it has transformed into something far more complex, deceptive, and selfish, defining a modern world strictly divided by outward appearance and connected by interior conflict. In the film’s hypnotic opening long take, two men exit a motel room, gaze up at the sky then proceed to “check out.” The camera follows closely, oozing with menace but never confirming actual danger until Cronenberg cuts inside the motel office, revealing pools of blood and two dead bodies. When one unexpected survivor appears, the killer’s action is deliberate and swift. These men are “bad men”, plain and simple, unflinching and brutal in every respect, and they aren’t singular figures. Cronenberg’s universe is chalk full of them.

The whimpers of one doomed child lead to the screams of another, a young girl who awakens from a bad dream to the support of her family. Father Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), mother Edie (Maria Bello), and son Jack (Ashton Holmes) encircle the little girl like covered wagons protecting a train of travelers, reassuring her that monsters don’t exist. Oh, but they do, and this dichotomy shows how action and violence transcend physical boundaries, slowly creeping along a landscape where safety is a myth and violence is a certainty.

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Like many revisionist Western heroes, Tom Stall is a family man of good standing in his small town community, the owner of a popular establishment and well liked by his peers. His family represents the American dream – a caring, devoted wife, and two seemingly innocent children. But something about the exaggerated locale and people feels forced, off-putting almost. Can it be this simple? Of course not, and when the two men from the first scene enter Tom’s diner, we know what to expect from them. What isn’t expected is Tom’s pinpoint deadly reaction, dispatching both men with a proficiency that calls into question his background. While certainly self-defense, Tom’s actions are too swift, too effective, and seem completely out of place on the homestead.

Cronenberg evolves this uncertainty of character throughout the rest of the invigorating narrative, forcing Tom and his family into a direct confrontation with the ugly reality of past events, furious demons rearing their ugly heads demanding payment in full. Each scene uses modern locales to confirm the Western iconography at their core. A shopping mall turns from a place of consumerism to a desperate stand off between mother and villain, and a school hallway illuminates a concise burst of unexpected violence between young men. Cronenberg complicates our expectations at every turn, most notably focusing on Tom’s eyes as they slowly change from simple hero to conflicted anti-hero, caring father to deliberate killer.

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The film infuses a brilliant third act with dynamic clashes between family, acts of retribution that clarify Cronenberg’s deconstruction of Western archetypes. Husband and wife contradict a previous act of love with an uncomfortable, loveless sex scene. Tom and his gangster brother (William Hurt) work out decades of repression and subtext in one bloody set piece. Finally, the traditional American family sits down together for one last supper, broken, changed, and warped by the reality that their exterior selves hardly match the brewing infusions of hatred and fear simmering inside. Their inability to look each other in the eyes becomes complimented by an ensuing dread of moving on together, in this house, as a family built on lies. But that might be better than nothing.

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A History of Violence is a nightmarish walk down memory lane, where characters compromise, murder, and deceive in order to protect an image of family, a shadow of togetherness. Surnames hold so much history, even when that history is built on fabricated versions of reality and dead bodies. Cronenberg dissects this idea with a razor sharp attention to human interaction, peeling away the layers of a man yearning for something more than murder and death, but dependent on it all the same. You can’t deny your true self, and Tom’s atypical homecoming holds none of the joy or celebration it should.

Dead Ringers (Cronenberg, 1988)

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Jeremy Irons gives one of the great performances of all time as successful twin gynecologists falling into a tailspin of drugs and guilt. All the Cronenberg motifs are on display – the parallel severing of body and mind being the most significant. Howard Shore’s rousing music wonderfully compliments this truly strange tale, and his glaring contribution seems more necessary to Cronenberg’s vision than usual, producing the most pertinent aesthetic double for the brother’s horrific downfall.

Crash (Cronenberg, 1996)

My only thought after watching this gleaming, richly layered porno for art’s sake by David Cronenberg is that people must have a lot of time on their hands to go around having sex in cars and then causing massive crashes. But I have a feeling this film isn’t a conduit for a type of reality, but of a hyper visual and sensual nightmare waiting to happen. Either way, it’s both smoking hot and dreadfully dull at the same time, a litany of sexual images contrasted with broken glass and twisted metal. When it comes down to it, even though Crash highlights some disturbing and fascinating philosophies at work, I prefer so many other Cronenberg films to this one.

The Dead Zone (Cronenberg, 1983)

Here’s an anomaly of a movie. The Dead Zone looks expensive and expansive (as shot by Cronenberg’s longtime D.P. Mark Irwin), has a big name actor in Christopher Walken, and an epic story, yet it feels incredibly intimate and restrained. As displayed lately in examples like A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, even early in his career Cronenberg holds the camera on his characters for long spells, letting the light bounce off their face, the wonder drain from their eyes in moments of conflict. Walken has the perfect look for this film, and his performance resonates equal parts pain and humility, never retreating to the over-the-top persona he’s known for today. The gift of second sight is treated with respect, slowly letting John Smith (Walken) understand that he can never really be free of it. The Dead Zone is full of sacrifices, and the ramifications go beyond our initial comprehension. John is literally changing the world one vision at a time, and it ultimately costs him his life. However, Cronenberg and Walken see this as a victory over the arrogance and madness of their respective foes, whether it be the serial killer who’s plagued the town of Castle Rock for years or Martin Sheen’s apocalyptic politician. With this gift, John Smith does just enough to make all the difference, and it’s an affecting entertainment, full of possibilities and outcomes beyond the final credits. Maybe that’s why the USA Network made a television show so many years later.

Videodrome (Cronenberg, 1983)

After being introduced to David Cronenberg in college I’ve never really been the same since. Many of his films speak toward future revolutions of the body and mind, often brutally and without remorse. Videodrome is a timely example of this fleshy becoming, charting the fall of television producer Max Renn (James Woods) after he discovers a pirated snuff program via satellite. Max slowly descends into maddness and becomes a cog/assasin for the powerful producer of the show. The film still holds resonance concerning such battles between perception vs. reality, sex vs. violence, and art vs. commerce, and how all three pairs meld together to form modern entertainment. Videodrome isn’t what I remember either, since it seems more an exploration of social/mental evolutions than a viral horror film (although it revels in it’s moments of gore). Cronenberg is a master of revealing the consequences of mental stasis, how the body reacts to growing amounts of stimulation and violent interaction in a bored and repressed society. In a world where fantasy trumps reality, Videodrome resembles a Magna Carta of awakenings, both to the over excitement people experience through visceral images and sounds and the impending destruction which could follow if manipulated and used by corrupt powers.