A Dangerous Method (showtimes) finds director David Cronenberg (Eastern Promises, Naked Lunch, Dead Ringers, The Fly, The Dead Zone, Videodrome) tabling the disturbing freak-o-rama imagery that helped build him a cult following, instead taking a very civilized, mostly low-key approach as he tells the fact-based story of therapist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and patient turned colleague turned mistress Sabrina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). The other primary story follows the wary friendship between Jung and Freud (Viggo Mortensen).
The film begins in Zurich in 1904, as Speilrein is brought to Jung's clinic for treatment. The young woman suffers from an anxiety disorder, hysteria and Lord knows what else. No one will accuse Knightley of playing it safe during the segment. She jerks about wild-eyed, screaming, sobbing and laughing, flailing about as she tries to escape her keepers. She appears to have muscle spasms, and she frequently juts out her lower jaw while growling and generally acting feral. In short, she looks like someone desperately trying to turn into a werewolf.
Spielrein soon meets Jung, and let's pause to talk about the actor for a moment. 2011 was a banner year for Michael Fassbender, as the grim Magneto in X-Men: First Class, an even grimmer sex addict in Shame and for his work here. In the first two films, Fassbender is clean-shaven and appears handsome, but severe and intimidating. In A Dangerous Method, he sports a mustache which - this is so bizarre - makes him resemble Bob Saget.
How disconcerting it is to watch discussions about the intricacies of the human mind between the co-star of Full House and a wannabe Werewolf of London. The evolving relationship between Jung and Spielrein is consistently interesting; Spielrein, an aspiring doctor herself, proves a worthy peer to Jung, though her eyes still get buggy when she feels threatened. The only tepid aspect of the relationship comes when it turns sexual: The pair get a little S&M thing going that seems more mechanical than erotic, at least on Jung's side of the bedroom.
The relationship between Jung and Freud is engaging, if more predictable. Jung greatly admires Freud and enjoys becoming friends with such a major figure, but finds Freud's incessant sexual interpretations constricting. Freud, played by Mortensen with just the right amount of authority and self-satisfaction, appreciates Jung, but finds his interest in pursuing ESP and other supernatural subjects disturbing and potentially damaging to their still-controversial profession.
Eventually both storylines meet, as is no surprise when a respected doctor has a mistress in the same field and an aristocratic wife (Sarah Gadon) who becomes aware of the extramarital hijinks. A third storyline involves a mentally ill colleague of Freud's, psychiatrist Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), who stirs the pot with his disdain for social oppression.
A Dangerous Method is talky, which is to be expected for a film based in part on a stage play, but most of it works. Intellectually and emotionally stimulating, it doesn't boil, it simmers. Except for the part where Spielrein goes bat-ass crazy, of course.