Filmmaker David Cronenberg has long toured the kinky corners of mental derangement, from Videodrome's pop culture addicts to Crash's car accident fetishists. With A Dangerous Method, he examines not just abnormal psychology but the abnormalities of psychoanalysts. The historical drama explores the relationship of psychological pioneers Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung (Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender), as well as the woman who precipitated their falling-out.
Keira Knightley literally rants and twitches as Sabina Spielrein, a highly intelligent but mentally ill woman committed to the Swiss mental hospital where Jung works in 1904. Knightley brings an almost embarrassing level of intensity to Sabina, from a Russian accent to sexual impulsiveness to a habit of jutting her lower jaw like a rabid dog. Jung devotes himself to her cure, to the point of having Sabina assist him with experiments on his wife (Sarah Gadon). Cronenberg clearly enjoys the depiction of an old-fashioned testing apparatus that resembles a primitive polygraph machine.
A Dangerous Method crosscuts between Jung's successes with Sabina, who becomes one of the world's first psychologists, to his friendship with Freud, whose weary cynicism over their profession contrasts with Jung's idealism. Jung initially comes across as a figure of integrity, but over the years he betrays his principles as a friend, husband and healer. Cronenberg and Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher Hampton avoid contrived confrontations in the name of dramatic heat, so Freud and Jung's friendship deteriorates not through showy arguments, but over months of increasingly terse correspondence.
Mortensen and Fassbender's excellent, subdued performances balance Knightley's mania, and A Dangerous Method conveys the risks and excitement of a time when science seemed on the verge of unlocking the mind's secrets. Even the word "ambivalent" was newly minted. The Merchant/Ivory-style period genre inhibits Cronenberg's penchant for scenes of behavioral extremes, and the script refuses to wrap up the story with a tidy conclusion. A Dangerous Method emphasizes melancholy epiphanies over mind-blowing revelations, but still proves to be an educational historical docudrama about the impossibility of truly comprehending the human mind.