I almost spat Coke into my popcorn when I saw the trailer for A Dangerous Method. Biopic? check. Costume drama? Check. “A Film by DAVID CRONENBERG,” huh? I knew Viggo Mortensen’s main man had a new film coming out, but a Knightley-Fassbender period romance was hardly what I expected. It’s not that the subject matter — Freud, Jung, and the birth of psychoanalysis — is a bad match. More like a redundancy. Cronenberg’s body of work can already be partly understood as a compendium of his feelings on Freud and a century of psychoanalytic thought. What’s to be gained from a straight take on material that he’s twisted and transformed, so imaginatively and elegantly, time and again? I know it’s obnoxious for a critic to insist that a movie should be something it isn’t, but I can’t fight the feeling. The English major in me is impressed by the intellectual ambition and writerly craft that went into this careful portrait of Jung, Freud, and their lesser-known sidekick Sabina Spielrein. It catches in the periphery of its gaze the plight of the Jews, the tragedy of the World Wars, and something about the mood of the 20th century. But it’s more educational than compelling. The cinephile in me longs for a real Cronenberg screenplay, which might have made something odd and truly majestic out of this historical triangle.
Simultaneously a tough guy and a sap, a realist and a romantic, director Michael Mann has for decades now been making movies about what it means to be a man. He chooses to tell these stories in familiar settings, setting his fairly measured character studies in the kind of testosterone-soaked milieu that has been favored by a century of manly filmmakers. Mann has made movies about cops and robbers. There’s one about a cab driver and an assassin, one about a whistleblower and another about a great athlete. He’s even made a supernatural horror movie set among Nazis. But he keeps returning to the subject of heroes and villains, about the role-playing that takes place when good guys go head-to-head with bad guys, and about what happens when the line between antagonist and protagonist gets blurred.
In the opening shot of Hunger, a small army of protesters — hunger-strikers, perhaps — is bringing the noise by banging empty soup bowls loudly against the ground. That scene is followed, lyrically, by a scene depicting an older, staid-looking gentleman eating his breakfast, tiny crumbs tumbling from his fork onto the napkin tucked away on his lap and then getting brushed away. He heads out to his car, looks up and down the street, and then falls to his knees and peers carefully at the car’s undercarriage before opening the door and getting in. His wife watches from the front-room window, the tension on her face easing slightly as the car roars to life and her husband drives away. This man turns out to be a guard at a prison in Northern Ireland. We see this man washing blood from his knuckles, which have been torn raw by the force of some blunt impact. It’s only later that we’re shown the sadistic behavior that earned him those scars. In a scene that toys with an audience’s mounting sense of dread, we see him taking a smoke break outside the prison walls, enjoying the tactile sensation of a light snowfall before heading back inside to do, we suspect, his worst. It’s a tense, expertly fraught study in contrasts that dramatizes the difference between the haves and the have-nots — the fed and the hungry.
Notably only for a first act that credibly depicts a three-way — and, eventually, four-way — relationship among friends and lovers without tilting embarrassingly toward titillation and/or soap opera, the blandly titled The Edge of Love is only incidentally a Dylan Thomas biopic. Welshman Matthew Rhys (currently on American television in Brothers & Sisters) plays the poet, and although the film draws on Thomas’ writings in voiceover (some of them the famous archival recordings in the poet’s own voice), he’s never the center of the drama. The film opens close in on a shot of Keira Knightley, playing Vera Phillips, a singer in a London nightclub during World War II. She meets Thomas, apparently an old childhood friend, and is charmed — but surprised when the poet’s wife, Caitlin (Sienna Miller), arrives on the scene. The three of them — starving artist, wife and, perhaps, muse — move in under one roof. Vera also catches the eye of William Killick (Cillian Murphy), a good-looking but perhaps too earnest solider who’s preparing to return to the front lines, and would like to take a wife before he goes back. She agrees, which makes Killick forever a member of this dysfunctional group.
Into the Wild, Sean Penn’s sprawling, stumbling, epic biopic adapted from Jon Krakauer’s best-selling book, borrows heavily from the kind of American film that defined the idea of the road movie. It features zooms, split screens, jump cuts, and a song score by a growling Eddie Vedder that wouldn’t feel at all out of place on 70s radio. (With backing vocals by Corin Tucker, he revives “Hard Sun,” a 1989 anthem by Indio, a band too obscure to have even a Wikipedia entry or Allmusic biography, to great effect.) Cinematographer Eric Gautier (The Motorcycle Diaries, Clean, Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train) favors long lenses here, the kind that can isolate one subject twixt foreground and background and then, dramatically changing their plane of focus, seek out another. They emphasizes the distances involved in the open spaces where much of the film takes place, and their voyeuristic qualities echo the book’s theme of observation across a temporal distance. Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) was found dead in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness. It was Krakauer’s job to figure out how an upper-middle-class kid ended up there; it’s Penn’s to imagine what the journey might have looked like.
Will Smith suffers so comprehensively at the hands of an uncaring world in The Pursuit of Happyness — his car is towed, his wife abandons him, he’s jailed, and he’s finally kicked out of his apartment — that I half expected, by the final reel, he’d be stricken with consumption, or that his son would be torn apart by wolverines. But, hey, it’s the holidays. And this is a rags-to-riches biopic that’s tailored for maximum inspirational, triumph-against-the-odds potential. It’s based on the life story of Christopher Gardner (Smith), a real can-do type who, according to his official bio, slept with his son at a San Francisco homeless shelter by night while working for Dean Witter Reynolds by day in a training position that paid peanuts (in the film, it’s an unpaid internship).