David Cronenberg’s career can be split down the middle, one half blood-and-gut splattered, heads blown off in “Scanners,” genders swapped in “Videodrome,” genes mutated resulting in the manifestation of the grotesque, the physically repulsive in “The Fly.” The other half is a much more subdued horror. The comfort of Americana corrupted in “A History of Violence,” the darkest recesses of the mind in “A Dangerous Method,” fame violent and vane in “Maps to the Stars,” the latest Cronenberg film set to hit theaters nationwide this weekend.
In the film “Eastern Promises,” mobster Nikolai advises the midwife Anna, “Stay away from people like me.” Cronenberg’s career can largely be summed up in three words: People like me. In the context of the movie, the line insinuates a divide between the characters, that there is a world Anna does not and cannot understand. Cronenberg’s films deal greatly with the “other,” a person or place or force that is far darker and far more treacherous than what the characters—and by proxy, the viewer—are familiar with.
Consider two scenes. One is from “The Fly,” when Jeff Goldblum’s transformation completes itself, when Seth Brundle’s human form it completely and horrifically mutated. Geena Davis’s Veronica can only look on as the man she loved disappears before her eyes. Now consider the final scene from “A History of Violence.” Tom Stall has just returned from a trip; his family is well aware of where he went and his reason for going. Wife Edie sits with kids Jack and Sarah at the dinner table. Tom joins them in silence. Slowly, Jack passes his father the meatloaf. Acceptance. Edie, who has kept her head down since he entered, finally looks up to meet her husband’s eyes.
In the first scene, a woman watches her lover transform into an insect-humanoid that she must destroy. The second scene concerns a man arriving home for dinner. Yet, it is in the respective gazes of the two women that we see the startling parallel, the subtle genius of Cronenberg. Tom and Seth are monsters. Seth has lost his physical humanity, his looks, his ability to speak. Tom has lost his spiritual humanity, the unquestioning love of his family, the cozy safety of simple suburban domesticity.
It’s not that Edie is accepting of Tom’s past, of the things he’s done. She has to. To scorn him is to scorn one of the most intrinsic, essential parts of human nature: the willingness to kill, the willingness to fight, to scrounge and scrape and claw and bite. Tom’s violence protects his family. He ventures to Philadelphia to meet Richie Cusack not out of blood lust or vengeance, but obligation. It’s a job just like running his diner. It’s a necessary evil. Cronenberg’s great work is in his uncompromising exploration of the human psyche. He views people deep down as animalistic, not far removed from living in caves and beating each other with clubs. The director’s graduation from the wall-splattering gore of his early schlock has introduced us to one of the premiere documenters of an underbelly otherwise kept in the shadows.
In “A Dangerous Method,” the outward violence of so many Cronenberg protagonists is analyzed at its source: the mind. An early scene features Keira Knightley’s Sabina Spielrein speaking with psychoanalyst Carl Jung, played by Michael Fassbender. Through the stories of Spielrein’s days of pubescent abuse at the hands of her father, Jung asserts their sexual and mental implications. She seizes and twists her face uncomfortably, and we are made to watch as Jung does. We are implicit in his cold, calculating methods. It is a shocking scene, shot plainly, cutting between three shots, as if anything elaborate would be too merciful.
“Maps to the Stars” is David Cronenberg’s twenty-first feature film, and is getting a wide release after making the festival circuit. During a scene between Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska, the former remarks, “I think you’re a little crazy,” to which the latter lightly replies, “So?” It’s delivered, not as if she is unaware of her nature, but rather that she is accepting, nonplussed even. Is she any different than the millions of people yearning for fame, willing to do whatever it takes to earn it? Forget violence, forget monsters and murderers and madmen. This film and its predecessor, “Cosmopolis,” might very well signal a new phase in the director’s career, one where modern day pop culture proves to be more chaotic and cruel than any act of violence could possibly be.
Article by Lucas Dispoto