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Movie Review

A Dangerous Method

MPAA Rating: R for sexual content and brief language.

Reviewed by: Jim O'Neill

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Primary Audience:
History Thriller Drama Adaptation
1 hr. 39 min.
Year of Release:
USA Release:
November 23, 2011 (NYC/LA), later widening
DVD: March 27, 2012
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Learn how to make your love the best it can be. Discover biblical answers to questions about sex, marriage, sexual addictions, and more.

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Are we living in a moral Stone Age? Answer



How can we know there’s a God? Answer

What if the cosmos is all that there is? Answer

If God made everything, who made God? Answer

What does God say? Answer

Is Jesus Christ God? Answer

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Featuring: Viggo MortensenSigmund Freud
Keira KnightleySabina Spielrein
Michael FassbenderCarl Jung
Vincent Cassel … Otto Gross
more »
Director: David Cronenberg
Producer: Recorded Picture Company (RPC)
Lago Film
Prospero Pictures
more »
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Filmmaker David Cronenberg has often made doctors the antiheroes of his cautionary tales of horror. Cronenberg’s physicians are professionals who strive to do good, but their genius tempts them to overreach, and, in so doing, they destroy more than they mend. Dr. Hobbs in “Shivers”, the twin gynecologists in “Dead Ringers” and Dr. Brundle in “The Fly” all meant well, the same way Dr. Frankenstein meant well, but a reliance on their own egos and a belief that they could “be as God” inevitably led to destruction. When those men of science denied that they were creatures of God, they became mere creatures. Left to their own mercy, they turned cruel and destructive.

Cronenberg’s new film, “A Dangerous Method” is not a horror movie, and it is not a modern day morality tale, as were his last two features, “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises”. “…Method” is an historical drama that focuses on the lives of three doctors: Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, and Sabina Spielrein. The screenplay was written by Christopher Hampton (“Atonement”, “Dangerous Liaisons”), and is based on Hampton’s play, “The Talking Cure”.

The film begins during the early years of the Twentieth Century. Carl Jung operates a clinic in Zurich where he treats patients suffering from hysteria and other psychological ailments. He is an avid student of Sigmund Freud and has adapted many of Freud’s theories of psychosexual development, repression, and interpretation of dreams to his own research and treatment methods. Freud and Jung become correspondents, and later, friends. Their friendship, and their ultimate falling out, drives the story, as does the relationship that develops between Jung and Sabina Spielrein, a Russian woman who is both his patient and his student. The focus is on the interpersonal relationships between the three and not on the science of psychiatry. Their ids rise up, their superegos lash back, and their egos collide in dramatic but never didactic ways.

Most of the time, it’s a joy to watch the reenactments of the late night sessions between Jung and Freud or the heart wrenching doctor patient exchanges between Jung and Sabina. Other times, the story gets as out of hand as some of the psychiatrists’ far-fetched theories about sexuality and emotional states. Sometimes I felt as though I was watching another Cronenberg horror movie, especially during the scenes depicting sadomasochism or acute hysteria.

According to Cronenberg and Hampton, the gyrating, foaming and contorting spasms that Sabina was going through during her hysterical episodes were accurate. Those scenes were directed and acted according to period reports that described the disease and its acute manifestations in detail. What the filmmakers explain as vigorous research looks too much like over-vigorous acting and directing. I kept wishing the camera would pull back some, and that Keira Knightley, who plays Sabina, would take it down a notch. A quirky, but affecting, actress, her combination of waif-like beauty and aristocratic bearing would seem to be a perfect fit for the brilliant but neurotic Sabina, but too often her performance is imposing, when it should be subtle. Her style becomes too much iron vise, and not enough velvet glove.

There is a lot of psychological discussion here, but it’s more along the lines of a late night college dorm chat session, and I’m not being critical when I say that. What makes the film so enjoyable is that it doesn’t lay the professional mumbo-jumbo on too thick; I never thought I could be entertained listening to talk about the collective unconscious, the Oedipal complex, transference, countertransference, triangular relationships, totemism, and lots of other stuff that belongs in unread term papers. I left the movie with my head less twisted than it would be, had I gone to a Woody Allen movie or watched an episode of “Seinfeld”.

There is little talk of symbolism, but Cronenberg uses quite a bit of it on screen. Upright stone sculptures and lush lawns and gardens fill the screen, the settings becoming more sensual than the people in those surroundings. The landscapes take on the characteristics of actual characters, the way the desert did in “Lawrence of Arabia”, the moors did in “Wuthering Heights”, or Manhattan did in “Sex and the City”(actually New York City was the only character in that movie). In “A Dangerous Method”, no natural element plays as dominant a role as water. Cronenberg uses it as a metaphor for the gulf that exists between his characters, as well as a way that they come together and blend. Freud and Jung’s “father-son” relationship (played out as a failure on both of their parts to overcome an Oedipal conflict) reaches a kind of crescendo in Jung’s sailboat on a Swiss lake, and their break-up occurs on an ocean liner, as they cross the sea together from Europe to America. Quite a bit of the drama unfolds along lake fronts and seaports. Is the water meant to represent the deep dark subconscious waiting to rise and to ebb?

It’s me who’s talking mumbo-jumbo now, and in this instance, water may just be water.

It’s a relief when Jung treats Sabina’s hysteria successfully; however, he violates the doctor/patient relationship when he begins an affair with her that lasts for what appears to be several years, and is often violent, as the two lovers reenact childhood beatings that she received from her father. Jung asks Freud for advice when he is treating Sabina, and Jung at first lies to Freud about his affair with his patient. Ultimately, Jung tells Freud the truth, breaks off the affair, and returns to his loyal, forgiving and rent-paying wife, Emma. Sabina, who does not want to end the affair, leaves Jung’s care and moves to Vienna to continue her treatments with Freud. Jung tries to continue his work, but he is haunted by the memories of Sabina, who later becomes a successful child psychologist, and according to the film, was Jung’s only true love.

The film closes with Jung at a crossroads in his life. He has had an already brilliant career, but he knows that he has squandered a great deal of his fortune. The last image is a haunting one, but it’s a beautiful one, too. And, yes, we’re back at the water’s edge. The once impeccably groomed, tightly starched and solemnly erect doctor is loose, slouched, and buttoned down, looking as though he’s ready to lead a modern day encounter group.

Jung isn’t the only one at a crossroads; the world is too. World War I is about to break out with major consequences for the main figures in the film and for all of Europe. Jung is a destroyed man (who will later recover and go on to do more significant work), and Europe itself is about to be destroyed. Is there a connection between what Jung has wrought upon himself and what is now happening in his world? Doctors Jung and Freud broke boundaries in science, and they made great progress in their field, but they also challenged societal norms and religious belief. They turned sexual norms upside down and replaced concepts of good and evil with concepts of the normative and the taboo.

Are we living in a moral Stone Age? Answer

Cronenberg has made many films about men who thwarted a norm only to be engulfed by guilt afterwards. In “A Dangerous Method,” he examines the lives of the men who brought us the concept of the guilt complex. Freud fought vigorously against the concept of God (the greatest of all Oedipal battles). He believed that guilt was not a response to a break with morality, but a manifestation of our own distorted psychosexual development. He insisted that man existed alone, without God. Jung believed in spirituality, although he felt it was possible, even desirable, to separate religious experience from religious morality. He could explore the concept of God at the same time he was cheating on his wife. Cronenberg masterfully shows how these men changed the world in many ways for the better, but also how they turned that world on its head.

What if the cosmos is all that there is? Answer

What does God say? Answer

The Ten Commandments

Cronenberg is an atheist who believes that art is a good substitute for religion. He believes that art teaches us how to live our lives, but that religion is too rigid and absolute to be a useful guide. Art, he says, is neither rigid nor absolute. It is subversive, in a good way, and it frees our subconscious. I’m not sure what any of that means, but based on those remarks, I bet Cronenberg’s film set is a really cool place to work. The director has said that “everybody is a mad scientist, and life is their lab”. That may well be the case, but it is interesting that all of Cronenberg’s mad scientists eventually blow up their labs.

I saw “A Dangerous Method” at the New York Film Festival where it premiered. Cronenberg, along with Christopher Hampton and the film’s star, Michael Fassbender, engaged the audience in a question and answer session after the film. Cronenberg was no different than most film directors during these events. Words failed him, and he dodged more questions than he answered. As he sat in front of a screen covered with corporate sponsor logos (an even worse move for the budding actor, Fassbender, who had nothing enlightening to say and looked way too earthly in size and scope by being in front of a screen instead of on it) Cronenberg seemed adrift and unable to explain verbally what his film conveyed in such vivid visual detail.

I already spoke about Keira Knightley’s performance as Sabina Spielrein. For a film rooted in symbolism, memory, and dreams, her acting is too real, too studied, to hit the right tone. The other actors seem more relaxed, but next to Knightley, who wouldn’t? Michael Fassbender is a perfect Carl Jung. His jaw is angled and clenched; his eyes austere and able to hide everything but his longings. He is a man who despite having everything: a brilliant mind, a beautiful wife who supports him financially and emotionally, and a promising career, has an insatiable hunger and a void that he can never fill. Fassbender can move effortlessly, at times even humorously, from cold detachment and spartan deprivation to drooling gluttony and laser eyed depravity. As Sigmund Freud, Viggo Mortensen is as restrained as ever; even the accent is toned down; he is the fatherly figure who is moved by Jung’s devotion and hero worship, only to be crushed by the rejection that comes later.

A David Cronenberg film lets us look at the human condition and see something that, despite the blood and mayhem, is both personal and universal. Whether the filmmaker intends it or not, his films have a moral message: we are responsible for our actions, and those actions have consequences. There is always a price to pay for violating a moral law. Or, as in the case of a mad scientist, for writing one’s own.

Violence: Heavy / Profanity: Moderate / Sex/Nudity: Heavy

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