Friday, August 31, 2012

Director Spotlight #9.20: David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. August’s director is body horror auteur David Cronenberg.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 56 (B-)

It makes sense that David Cronenberg made a film like A Dangerous Method. The director has shown a strong interest in psychology throughout his filmography, so a film about the founders of psychoanalysis seems like a good fit for the director. Yet for all of it’s strengths, A Dangerous Method isn’t a very satisfying film, and easily one of the director’s weaker efforts.

Russian woman Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) is in complete hysteria. Her father sends the young woman to Zurich into the care of Swiss doctor Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). A follower of Freud, Jung uses Sigmund Freud’s concept of psychoanalysis to treat Spielrein and get to the heart of her ailment before encouraging her interest in psychoanalysis. Jung’s success brings him to the attention of Freud himself (Viggo Mortensen), who accepts Jung as the heir to his teachings. But the two differ in key matters- Freud believes psychoanalysis should be based purely in empirical data and focus on sexual matters, whereas Jung believes the libido is overemphasized in Freud’s work and that less empirical and more radical territory should be explored. Meanwhile, Jung embarks on a relationship with former patient Spielrein.

Cronenberg crafts a rather elegant chamber piece in what’s easily the talkiest film the director ever made. There’s little violence and only small bursts of sexual excitement between Fassbender and Knightley, but Cronenberg directs the film well by making good use of the actors’ faces while taking a typically detached and observational style. Cronenberg’s uses greater use of split-diopter and deep focus than usual, usually showing one actor in the foreground describing their psychological hangups while another actor stays in the background, quietly observing. It’s a rather smart touch from Cronenberg that plays to the theme of psychoanalysis- observation is key, so let’s keep the listener in mind while the subject takes the stage.

Cronenberg should just start putting Viggo Mortensen in all of his films at this point- he’s the De Niro or DiCaprio to Cronenberg’s Scorsese. The director originally had Christoph Waltz cast as Freud, and while Waltz would no doubt have killed it, it’s hard to imagine a more shrewd bit of casting than Mortensen as the magnetic, inflexible professional. Cold and detached, Freud is a man whose conviction and ego makes him unbending and often bullying to his younger colleague. He’s almost ridiculously preoccupied with sexuality and its relation to the mind, and it’s easy to see why Jung might be frustrated by him. Yet he’s not a total bastard- he’s a man whose lower class and Jewish ethnicity has limited how much people are willing to listen to him, and it’s easy to feel his every slight by high society.

Michael Fassbender has quickly established himself as one of the finest actors alive, and while his higher-profile work in last year’s Shame deservedly got more attention, he’s still quite good here as Jung. Jung’s privilege as an affluent Protestant makes his rise as the world’s leading psychoanalyst over Freud inevitable; he doesn’t even consider that Freud’s ethnicity and class might prevent him from higher standing. He’s a more speculative and less rigid person, but he also frequently comes off as a sanctimonious jerk who judges others for neuroses that he himself displays. Jung’s relationship with Spielman, while passionate, never truly breaks through his repression, until he loses control and is sent to the point of nervous breakdown.

Knightley has the trickiest role of the bunch, one that rubbed a number of critics the wrong way. But while Knightley’s initial fever pitch as a screaming, twitching, chin-jutting neurotic is certainly big, it doesn’t come off as a stunt but rather as a character whose neuroses manifest themselves in a unhinged physical fashion. Where Jung is fatally repressed, Spielman suffers from a total lack of restraint brought upon by a mixture of guilt and excitement from her own masochism. Granted, the manic timbre of the opening twenty minutes couldn’t possibly have sustained a feature film without becoming exhausting, but Knightey settles nicely into a forceful but more restrained version of Spielman after the first act, torn between her connection to Freud’s method (which cured her) and views and her love for Jung.

Here’s the problem with A Dangerous Method: this is not a film. Cronenberg opens up the material as much as he can, but after a while his use of deep focus looks like his only trick to make the film feel cinematic. A Dangerous Method betrays the old dictum of “show, don’t tell”: nearly the whole film is made up of characters talk-talk-talking about the nature of their hangups and psychology and so on and so forth. The scenes between Jung and a well-cast but wasted Vincent Cassel as Otto Gross are the film at its worst, as the two talk about whether it’s better to be repressed or unrestrained (hello, thesis!). It’s interesting, but there’s not much drama to it and very little momentum. It’s surprising that the film was originally based off of screenwriter Christopher Hampton’s play The Talking Cure, considering that little of this makes for gripping drama. If anything, it feels like the original book, John Kerr’s A Most Dangerous Method, was fruitlessly willed into a dramatic structure. It’s not a bad movie by any means- Cronenberg’s director and the actors’ performances make sure of that, and it maintains a certain level of intelligence. But intelligence isn’t always intriguing.

And with that, August’s Director Spotlight on David Cronenberg comes to a close. Hopefully Cosmopolis will expand beyond limited release sometime soon so I can give it a look, but for now, it’s time I move on. Here’s some superlatives:

Best to Worst:

1.     Dead Ringers (A)
2.     The Fly (A)
3.     Videodrome (A)
4.     A History of Violence (A)
5.     The Brood (A)
6.     Naked Lunch (A)
7.     Shivers (A-)
8.     The Dead Zone (A-)
9.     Crash (B+)
10. M. Butterfly (B+)
11. Scanners (B+)
12. Rabid (B+)
13. Eastern Promises (B+)
14. A Dangerous Method (B-)
15. Spider (C+)
16. Fast Company (C+)
17. eXistenZ (C)
18. Stereo (C)
19. Crimes of the Future (C-)
Best Actor: Jeremy Irons (Dead Ringers)
Runner-up: Jeff Goldblum (The Fly)

Best Actress: Geena Davis (The Fly)
Runner-up: Samantha Eggar (The Brood)

Best Supporting Actor: William Hurt (A History of Violence)
Runner-up: Oliver Reed (The Brood)

Best Supporting Actress: Genevieve Bujold (Dead Ringers)
Runner-up: Judy Davis (Naked Lunch)

Best Scene: “In the Still of the Night” (Dead Ringers)
Runner-up: “Long Live the New Flesh” (Videodrome)

With September comes the tenth edition of the Director Spotlight feature. For this, I wanted to look into the career of not just a great director, but a world-class cinephile. Starting tomorrow, look forward to Director Spotlight’s coverage of Francois Truffaut. And as a bonus, there will be a special edition of Director Spotlight on a modern cinephile whose new film is my most awaited of the year.

Director Spotlight #9.19: David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. August’s director is body horror auteur David Cronenberg.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 73 (B+)

Eastern Promises can’t help but feel a little weak coming after A History of Violence. It’s David Cronenberg’s second crime-thriller in a row, and both feature Cronenberg’s typically measured, probing, chilly touch. But where A History of Violence benefited from being pulpier than most Cronenberg films, Eastern Promises sometimes feels a little too staid and stately. But that’s not to say that it’s a bad film by any means. Quite the contrary, it’s another Cronenberg film that improves on repeat viewings, and a more than worthy addition to his oeuvre.

Anna (Naomi Watts) is a midwife in London of Russian descent. When a 14-year-old Russian immigrant dies during childbirth and leaves behind only her diary, Anna connects the diary to Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a ruthless Russian mobster who poses as a kindly restaurant owner, and his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel). Anna fears what Semyon and Kirill might do if they get their hands on the diary, but she finds an unlikely ally in Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), a driver and heavy who works for Semyon and Kirill.

Eastern Promises mostly moves along as a supremely engaging, often brutal thriller. Cronenberg shows the ins-and-outs of the Russian mob with strong assurance, and his ability to make the audience uncomfortable with their bodies remains unchallenged: fingers are chopped, throats are slit, young prostitutes are forced into joyless sex, and none of the gory details are spared. It’s well-acted by an empathetic Watts, a Machiavellian Stahl, an unstable and often pathetic Cassel, and, in a nice bit of casting, Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski as Watts’ uncle.

 Cronenberg directs with an greater cold, observant distance and intensity than he did on A History of Violence, but it doesn’t always serve him well. The film moves along fluidly, but it rarely gets under the skin as well as his best works.  Part of the problem comes from Steven Knight’s script, which does a good job of describing the workings of the Russian mob- particularly with a bit about how tattoos tell a Russian criminal’s life story that fits Cronenberg’s body-obsessions rather well- but which seems confused as to who the protagonist is (Anna or Nikolai) and for the most part doesn’t seem to add up to much more than a well-observed thriller.

 The film’s key strength, then, is Mortensen’s phenomenal Oscar-nominated performance as Nikolai. In a film where everyone else seems to be losing their footing, Nikolai is in perfect control and cool as a cucumber. Mortensen never overdoes the Russian accent or tries to hard to act scary. Rather, his cool intensity recalls Robert De Niro in The Godfather II- the son of a bitch is so deliberate in his movements and his carefully picked words that he’s naturally frightening. He’s introduced as a meticulous cleanup man with little fear and complete assurance (I love the intimidating touch of Nikolai putting out a cigarette on his tongue). He’s a man of extraordinary patience- he puts up with Kirill’s badgering and abuse for a chance to get close to the boss. Yet he’s not completely heartless: he treats Anna with kindness and shows genuine concern for both a prostitute he’s forced to sleep with and for the baby Semyon has threatened to kill.

Cronenberg and Mortensen both received overwhelming praise for one scene in particular: the bathhouse fight. Easily one of Cronenberg’s finest set-pieces, the scene is set up slowly and deliberately as Nikolai is led in to be sacrificed in place of Kirill. As he’s ambushed by two thugs, he’s at his most vulnerable- pale and completely naked, unarmed and relying only on his wits and his fragile body. He’s cut several times and only barely overcomes the two men. It’s a brutally effective sequence that showcases both Cronenberg’s interest in the frailty of the body and the latent level of homoeroticism within hypermasculine organizations- as a sweaty, bloody, naked Nikolai kills the two men, he pins them, climbs on top of them, and penetrates them with knives. That it’s staged to look like he’s sexually overpowering them is no accident.

Yet this isn’t the only great scene of Eastern Promises. The twist in the film’s final minutes- that Nikolai is working undercover for the police- it barely registers upon the first watch, but its weight is felt upon repeat viewings. Nikolai is the inverse of Mortensen’s character from A History of Violence- a good and moral man posing as a monster. He has gone to hell and back, and his efforts have put himself and the easily manipulated Kirill at the top of the London sect of the Russian mob. But can he keep track of the goodness within himself, or will he lose that identity to the brutal acts he has to perform as a member of the organized crime syndicate? Unlike most Cronenberg films, Eastern Promises practically begs for a sequel. There’s plenty of potential in the relationship between Nikolai and Kirill (who may or may not be a closeted homosexual) and in the story of a man being lost in moral and existential murk. Cronenberg, Mortensen, and Cassel were all ready to start shooting this year when Focus Features pulled the plug. For once, the lack of a sequel feels like a disappointment rather than a virtue.

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Director Spotlight #9.18: David Cronenberg's A History of Violence

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. August’s director is body horror auteur David Cronenberg.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 93 (A)

After a series of difficult but rewarding adaptations (Naked Lunch, M. Butterfly, Crash), David Cronenberg seemed to be on the verge of lapsing into self-parody with the ambitious but hopelessly muddled eXistenZ and the fascinating but inane Spider. Along comes A History of Violence, easily the punchiest and pulpiest film of David Cronenberg’s career. Based off a graphic novel, the film takes the structure of a relatively straightforward potboiler thriller and has clear pulp origins. But that punchy quality is part of what gives the film’s moral and existential ambiguity such overwhelming power and makes it the director’s best film since Dead Ringers.

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen in the first of three collaborations with Cronenberg) has carved out a comfortable living for himself in Millbrook, Indiana. He has a loving and still playful relationship with his wife Edie (Maria Bello) and two children, teenage son Jack (Ashton Holmes) and young daughter Sarah (Heidi Haynes). He owns a diner, and he has become a regular member of the community. One night two thrill-killers attempt to rob Tom’s diner. As they’re about to kill a waitress, Tom kills the two of them with surprising aplomb and becomes a local hero. But the exposure brings unwanted attention: Philadelphia gangster Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), who believes that Tom is really a man named Joey Cusack, and that he’s the man who took out Fogarty’s eye. Tom denies all involvement, but Fogarty is insistent, and he has a good question: “how come Tom is so good at killing people?”

A History of Violence shows some of Cronenberg’s most assured work behind the camera, starting with the opening shot. There’s an extraordinary deliberate pace to the proceedings as he introduces the two men who will later try to rob Tom’s diner. There’s a fantastic sense of quiet and stillness that outdoes anything Cronenberg did in the aesthetically rich but often impenetrable Spider.  We’re not quite sure who these people are or what their deal is, but there’s something far too calm about the situation and about the static shot that calls us to pay attention. And then Cronenberg follows one of the men into a motel and takes a look inside, where we see the carnage of their last crime: blood everywhere, dead bodies, and one remaining survivor who won’t last much longer.

It’s a formally brilliant sequence, as well as an intelligent opening that’s important to establish a contrast between the dangerous men and the seemingly normal Tom. Millbrook is established as Anywhere, America. It’s a nice town with nice people, all of whom have a certain likable folksiness and to them, Tom and Edie included. They all seem like they’ve never had a traumatic experience in their life and that they’ve got a perfect marriage. So when the two thrill-killers arrive at Tom’s diner, it feels like it could be a drawn-out situation where everything goes to hell. Tom’s assurance at handling the situation and killing the two, then, is shocking and unsettling. We cheer on our likable protagonist, but then we see the results: a man’s face has been blown pretty much clean off. It’s frank and disgusting violence that shows how fragile the body really is (always a strength of Cronenberg’s), and it’s the first scene that makes us question our earlier bloodlust.

Cronenberg does an excellent job of thwarting expectations and keeping the audience guessing with a very patient, slow-burning tension that studies how a normal family might handle overwhelming pressure and the looming threat of violence. Cronenberg also assembles one of the best casts he ever worked with: Maria Bello gives what’s easily the best performance of her career as the put-upon Edie, a woman who goes from supportive of her husband and protective of her family to someone who realizes that the love of her life is perhaps not the man she thought he was. Ed Harris is equally excellent as Fogarty, a mob man who hides his boiling hatred behind a thin veneer of politeness (“it really is terrific coffee!”).

The real revelation is Mortenson, an actor who quietly built up a reputation as an underutilized presence in films like Carlito’s Way, The Indian Runner, and G.I. Jane before his commercial breakthrough in The Lord of the Rings. Mortensen’s performance is fantastic throughout, but one learns to appreciate its complexity and nuance upon repeat viewings. Tom is the perfect everyman. Sure, he’s handsome and athletic and his wife is gorgeous, but he lives such a low-key life that it’s hard to suspect him of anything. Yet try as he might, there is a violent nature in Tom, one that he can’t fully suppress as much as he may try: he is Joey Cusack, a man who killed for both money and pleasure. Tom’s confrontations with the villains show extraordinary restraint and commitment to his front: he tries his best to avoid any and all confrontation, and only when he’s pushed to the point of desperation does he show his true face: that of a violent, cold-blooded killer.

Reality has been a major theme within Cronenberg’s body of work, with many characters disappearing into meticulously constructed fantasies either by their own will (Naked Lunch, M. Butterfly) or by an uncontrollable force (Videodrome, Dead Ringers). A History of Violence shows the illusion of the idealized family unit, forced into will by a man trying to escape a horrific past. Joey has been Tom for so long that it’s second-nature to him, and, to be fair, he really does seem to love his wife and children. But while Tom can play it all as cool as a cucumber, reality starts to shine through: Fogarty isn’t the kind of man who’s going to put himself out in the open without reason…say, getting back at the man who tried to take his eye out. The cracks start to show through, and when Tom snaps into his violent nature in his final confrontation with Fogarty, it’s hard to deny it any longer. He admits it to himself and to Fogarty: “I should have killed you in Philly”. His son saves his life by shooting Fogarty, but as the two embrace, it’s clear that Jack is truly afraid of his father. Edie doesn’t even know how to process it, and as she drags the truth out of Tom, it becomes clear that their marriage is some sort of a strange front for a sociopath.

Loss of control is another major theme of Cronenberg’s. In a sense, it’s a callback to Cronenberg’s masterpiece Dead Ringers, where two sensibilities inhabit the same body (or similar bodies). Once reality comes crashing down, it grows increasingly difficult for Tom to suppress Joey’s base instincts. Two wildly differing sex scenes best highlight this shift in personality, along with their accompanying bits of Howard Shore’s phenomenal score. The first is between a happily married couple: Tom and Edie are as giddy and as horny as a couple of teenagers, so it makes sense that they’d role-play as cheerleader and boyfriend in a sex scene that’s equal parts sweet, funny, tender, and erotic. These are two people whose love for each other hasn’t diminished over the years. Howard Shore’s score is at it’s idealistic best, near John Williams levels.

Contrast that to a scene at the end of the film’s second act: Tom and Edie have lies to a family friend about Tom’s past, and Edie can barely stand to be in the same room as Tom anymore. As he runs for her, she slaps him…and he grabs her throat. The animal is loose, and Joey is in charge. The two have sex on the staircase, but the scene is disturbing on several levels. First, Joey forces himself on Edie- it’s borderline rape. More disturbing still is how she responds: with passion. Shore’s score swells with brooding, near-tragic tones. By the end, Edie’s left with bruises and guilt for having responded to Joey, and it’s clear that Tom’s identity is slipping.

Identity, of course, is yet another central theme throughout Cronenberg’s filmography. The only way that Tom can repair his identity is to make peace with his past. Act three shows Tom traveling back to Philadelphia to visit his brother Richie, played by William Hurt in a scene-stealing Oscar-nominated performance. At this point, the film turns into a wicked black comedy about two brothers who hate each bitterly. Tom hates Richie because he’s the final link to his past. Richie hates Tom (ahem, Joey) because Joey’s attempted hit on Fogarty cost Richie his prominence and respect within the Philadelphia mob. Richie dryly notes that his brother is the truly sick one (“you took his eye with barbed wire. That’s disgusting”) and that he’s always been a problem (“I tried to strangle you in your crib…mom caught me, whacked the daylights outta me”). The only way Tom/Joey can make things right? Die.

Here, Tom almost completely disappears as Joey drops all pretenses. He’s a man from small town America, but he’s not hiding that he’s a cold-blooded killer who likely knows his final encounter with his brother is going to end in bloodshed. He’s still the violent man who can’t be stopped, much to the annoyance of Richie (to a goon who had a clear shot to kill Joey: “how do you fuck that up?!”). And when it comes down to the final bit, they both realize the weight of the situation. Richie’s final words as he realizes he’s about to die: a darkly funny “Jesus, Joey”. Tom’s answer, “Jesus, Richie”? Much less funny.

For as Tom washes his wounds and the blood from his body, it’s clear that the water can’t cleanse his soul. As he returns home for a family dinner, his family only gradually and reluctantly welcomes him. Sarah welcomes him with a plate, but it’s not clear whether it’s out of love or fear. Jack passes the food, but he can barely make eye-contact with his father, whose face is filled with shame and sadness. Edie finally looks to Tom. Their expressions are inscrutable. Can they return to a beautiful lie, or has the truth destroyed them? 

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