David Cronenberg's thematic preoccupations show through so clearly that it's almost redundant when he makes a movie that nakedly addresses them. (See also: Crash.) A Dangerous Method, in which Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) debate the care of a female mental patient, is squarely in Cronenberg's wheelhouse, what with its proliferation of sexual dysfunction and body horror. But perhaps because his interests are so tangibly present in the script, Cronenberg brings little to the proceedings himself. It's a serviceable prestige picture, but it's Cronenberg for people who don't like Cronenberg.
As Sabina Spielrein, Jung's patient, lover and eventual disciple, Keira Knightley almost literally ties herself in knots; during one particularly violent spasm, she contorts her jaw as if she's about to turn into Brundlefly. It doesn't help that she's saddled with a lugubrious faux-Russian accent while Fassbender and Mortensen fall back on the King's English, but the effect is still a painful one, as if she's straining for credibility she shouldn't need to establish. She'd be easier to take seriously if she stopped insisting on it quite so much.
Jung and Freud's back-and-forth is meant to form the basis for psychoanalysis, establishing a definitive link between physical ailments and mental disorders. Freud's own skills as a therapist aside, it's one of the most important intellectual developments of the 20th century, so why does A Dangerous Method feel so studied and lifeless?
Cronenberg's not phoning it in, exactly, but he hangs back, never asserting himself, as if the movie doesn't need his help. There's no dynamism to its exchanges, and they're not profound enough to stand on words alone. For all its highbrow trappings, the script is short on detail, failing to delineate or expand upon what feel like idle conversations rather than world-shaking conflicts. It's a movie of ideas, but there aren't nearly enough of them.