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Retrospective: The Films Of David Cronenberg

by The Playlist Staff
November 22, 2011 11:50 AM
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"Eastern Promises" (2007)
After tentatively stepping into mainstream territory with "A History of Violence," Cronenberg consolidated that move with the again-almost-straightforward crime thriller "Eastern Promises." What's perhaps surprising is how successful the film is on its own terms. While some of the director's trademark concerns are in evidence (bodies, and their mutilation, still fascinate, be it through tattoos, the stubbing of a cigarette on a tongue, the dispassionate dissection of a corpse or the roiling, writhing, inordinately fleshy, naked fight in the steam room), here they are relegated to character background or incidental action; they don't inform the main thrust of the plot. Instead we get an engrossing, well-researched, low-key mafia movie, only here the city is London and the Mafia is Russian. And in Naomi Watts' midwife, dogged in her mission to solve the mystery of a young girl who died in her care, we are given possibly the first Cronenberg protagonist since "The Dead Zone"'s Christopher Walken who we are actively encouraged to like. But it's Mortensen who steals the show (though Armin Mueller-Stahl and Vincent Cassel both give him a run for his money). His Nikolai is a mass of contradictions and moral conundrums, marshaled into a conflicted but frighteningly disciplined killer: it's a character we're happy we're going to see more of, if the mooted sequel happens. Yes, there are those who lament the evolution of the Cronenberg movie from the cerebral schlock of yesteryear to the brainy accessibility of today, but on this evidence, we're happy to follow him wherever he leads. [A-]

A Dangerous Method” (2011)
So somewhere along the way, the David Cronenberg of earlier years, while pursuing his pet ideas and concepts, and in the process producing often-unforgettable genre classics, became a truly dynamic storyteller, something that critics often overlook. In "A Dangerous Method," he employs all of that flair, twisting and tweaking the structure of this curious psychodrama in ways no other director would approach. As a result, Cronenberg excels in depicting the professional tensions between Carl Jung and his mentor Sigmund Freud, and Jung's own flirtation with student/patient Sabina Spielrein. He juxtaposes the straight-laced nervousness of Jung, the cigar-chewing (natch) boldness of Freud and the bedroom dysfunction of the genuinely tortured Spielrien. But he's also having a wry laugh at the proceedings, depicting Freud as a psychological bully who treats everyone as his test subjects, and Jung as the whimsical genius who starts to credit his own mind-powers almost as a reflexive response to Freud's subtle bullying. "A Dangerous Method" has divided Cronenberg fans precisely because of this formal playfulness, vacilating between the dry routine of men in suits in smoking rooms and the twisted kink of a wooden rod against Keira Knightley's attractive backside. But "A Dangerous Method" is more a synthesis of Cronenberg the mature storyteller and Cronenberg the horror maestro than its period trappings might suggest: once again, he is exploring the horrors of the body (Jung is almost repulsed by his own longings) in a way both subtle and perversely overt. Whether that synthesis spices up a conventional, talky period drama, or simply renders the film less successful as a period drama, is a debate that rages on. [B+]

-- Gabe Toro, Drew Taylor, Rodrigo Perez, Sam Price, Erik McLanahan, Jessica Kiang, Sam Chater, 

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  • Bill Reynolds | March 16, 2014 1:20 AMReply

    Apparently, whoever wrote about eXistenZ is unfamiliar with Philip K. Dick since Perky Pat's is a direct reference to both a PKD short story and elements of a subsequent novel.

  • Viggo Davids | June 20, 2013 1:50 PMReply

    Seriously?....did u find issue with the ending of 'A History of Violence' disappointing?....It was full of fireworks!....2nd best from cronenberg after Dead Ringers

  • Carry | March 15, 2013 7:27 PMReply


  • Fred | November 22, 2011 9:58 PMReply

    Thanks for a great, spot-on retrospective and one that happily doesn't undervalue his wonderful earlier features.

  • Erik McClanahan | November 22, 2011 9:51 PMReply

    Echo chamber for the ending to History. So great. Chris, I'm with you on Spider, but no love for Eastern Promises? I wasn't crazy about it the first viewing, but the second one proved more satisfying for me, especially since I knew where the plot was going, I could focus on and appreciate everything else that works so well in the film. Its ending is also really strong. And re watching Videodrome recently, I'd say it's one of my favorites now, easily nestled in my top 10 of all time.

  • Christopher Bell | November 22, 2011 6:00 PMReply

    I too loved the ending of "History"... not a fan of "Eastern" or "Spider," though.

  • Christopher Bell | November 22, 2011 6:00 PMReply

    I too loved the ending of "History"... not a fan of "Eastern" or "Spider," though.

  • Justin | November 22, 2011 1:35 PMReply

    Continuing the love for the coda of A History of Violence. Sure, the article credits the "so much going on beneath a frozen surface" but the greatness is in the ambiguity of that look between Mortgensen and Bello concerning what man Tom/Joey is anymore. Unmentioned is the fact that Eastern Promises has the exact same ending only the 'good'/'bad' reveal is reversed but maintains the same ambiguity.

  • zatopek | November 22, 2011 1:34 PMReply

    The ending of A History of Violence is perfect.

  • rotch | November 22, 2011 1:00 PMReply

    Completely with Styles on this one. Naked Lunch is a major work. And the only film of his that can be labeled a comedy... of sorts.

    As for the anticlimactic ending of A History of Violence, I find it funny that you mentioned it. I read the graphic novel before watching the film, and it has a really gory, Cronenbergian ending. So the fact that he and screenwriter Olson decided to tone it down came as a pleasant surprise. Love that coda at the dinner table.

    Also worth mentioning, his short film Camera. Hands down his most humane, touching work and one of my favorite short films of all time.

  • Styles | November 22, 2011 12:51 PMReply

    I cracked up at this line in your B- review of Naked Lunch, "Shame, then, that it never comes together into anything like coherence: the director didn't make his name with easy watches, but this is near impenetrable. "

    Uh...the tagline of the film is "Exterminate All Rational Thought." Naked Lunch is one of his best works.

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