'A Dangerous Method' review: Perfectly acted sex, lies and conversation

John KerrKeira KnightleyDavid CronenbergViggo MortensenAcademy AwardsMichael Fassbender

*** (out of four)

Here’s a list of things less complicated than the brain.

Almost everything.

End of list.

In “A Dangerous Method,” psychoanalysis develops from the pursuits of psychiatrist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), who’s equally convinced that sexual desires explain everything and that his opinion represents the correct one. The men’s debates explode with intellectual curiosity. Freud perceives himself the wise mentor; Jung pursues, as he puts it, another hinge into the universe other than sex, though his increasingly complicated relationship with a previously unhinged patient (a shocking Keira Knightley) only furthers his uncertainty about logical human interaction.

Writer Christopher Hampton adapted the movie from his play, based on a book by John Kerr. Hampton won an Oscar for taking the same approach with “Dangerous Liaisons”; with “Method,” he contributes both riveting, fascinating language and an ultimately constricted dedication to talking about doing rather than doing. The story, of course, focuses on the development of an approach rather than the firm implementation of it, but eventually all the conversation leaves you wanting a bit more action.

And if Jung’s feelings for Sabina (Knightley) never register as love, it’s not because of the performances. Everyone’s excellent; most surprising, certainly, is Knightley, who maneuvers from a place of terror about her own abuse-driven, involuntary sexual responses to a time when the student could become the teacher. With perhaps a softer edge than usual, director David Cronenberg (“A History of Violence”) demonstrates nothing less than big ideas about the nature of humanity and a keen perception of the development and dissolution of some very specific relationships. Everyone in “A Dangerous Method” employs a method that could be considered dangerous; what’s at stake is questions that every person deals with in trying to understand themselves and others. And if that doesn’t interest you, you can show up for the bedroom spankings, and take the brainy chats as a bonus.

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mpais@tribune.com. @mattpais

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