When David Cronenberg decided to follow up the astonishing Eastern Promises with A Dangerous Method, about Carl Jung’s relationship with Freud and one of their shared patients, a few people bemoaned that director’s turn toward what they perceived as softer material. Starring Michael Fassbender as Jung, Viggo Mortensen as Freud, and Keira Knightley, in inarguably her best performance to date, as the patient, Sabina Spielrein, A Dangerous Method is a costume drama, but not by any means soft. Cronenberg depicts Spielrein and Jung’s relationship, which inevitably turns aggressively sexual, as a deep dive into the wild nature of carnal desire, and Jung’s repudiation of his infidelity with her as man’s inability to truly experiment and embrace feminine independence, as well as their own. The exquisite wardrobe and production detail may scream propriety and genteel emotions, but this isn’t exactly Pride & Prejudice.
A Dangerous Method trades in the same ferociously intellectual, unsettlingly physical, and thematically ambitious material that Cronenberg’s halcyon-era works do, whether it be Scanners, The Brood, or Naked Lunch. Cronenberg’s core fascinations have always been in the life of the mind, psychology, and how those subjects are expressed physically, and A Dangerous Method fits that bill to a T. That neither this lacerating drama, nor the three other aforementioned masterpieces, appear on this list should give you some sense about just how deeply resonant and influential Cronenberg’s oeuvre is to this day.
Where A Dangerous Method and Cosmopolis, another late Cronenberg masterwork, suggest a more familiar formal maturity in their aesthetic, Cronenberg’s extensive salad-days output more freely reflected modern horror filmmaking. In fact, along with John Carpenter, Cronenberg pushed horror into a radical realm of philosophical and psychological conception. One could feel a deeply studied sense of style in both these filmmakers, and for Cronenberg, the body was the ultimate expressive canvas for his thoughts on obsession, death, capitalism, and the form itself. Videodrome offers as many thoughts on the future of television and VHS as it does on the innately human desire to meet oblivion; the sickness of addiction and the selfish ambition that comes with the creative impulse hangs over Dead Ringers, in the bifurcated personas of twin surgeons who fall for the same woman.
Cronenberg’s career alone would prove the artistic merit of horror films. Every film of his is worthwhile – his super-early films are a bit rough-hewed and underdeveloped, but his student films are worth seeking out. For those who haven’t taken the plunge already, here are the five films you should start with when starting in on Cronenberg’s oeuvre. Enjoy, and brace yourself!