Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Dangerous Method and the Dangerous Perceptions of “Oscar” Movies

Every year, usually starting a few weeks after the Oscars, movie fans trapped in the cinema abyss of March and April inevitably begin looking ahead to the months when studios aren’t just throwing out the trash. (Even if that might seem like every month, it’s especially true in the box office no man’s land between the Oscars and the start of summer movie season.) With Cannes just around the corner in May, release schedules are already getting set for the rest of the year, and studios are starting to decide what movies to throw their money and attention behind.

See, this is when Oscar season really starts, because as soon as a studio decides to send a movie to Cannes, or to announce a late November/December release date for a star-studded drama, The Oscar machine goes to work on the public’s consciousness. Even Entertainment Weekly, in their annual Oscar recap issue a week after the ceremony, always features a sidebar listing ten movies that “could” compete for next year’s big prize. That’s when we collectively learn things like “Clint Eastwood’s directing a J. Edgar Hoover biopic starring Leonardo DiCaprio?” or “Meryl Streep is playing Margaret Thatcher?” And kids, that’s when alleged Oscar movies start their long journey to either A) the red carpet at the Kodak theatre, or (more likely) B) the painful awareness that “expectations were not met.”

It was around this time in 2011 that the radar first blipped with a movie called A Dangerous Method, which would explore the relationship and rivalry between Freud and Jung. Starring Viggo Mortensen (fresh off an Oscar nomination for Eastern Promises) as Freud, Michael Fassbender (unanimously heralded as an “actor to watch”) as Jung, and Keira Knightley as their patient, the movie already looked promising. But wait, there was more! It’s also directed by David Cronenberg, that under-appreciated horror movie genius of the 80’s, finally in the midst of a long deserved critical and commercial hot streak following 2005’s A History of Violence and 2007’s Eastern Promises.

So let’s recap and go through our Oscar Movie Checklist: Previously nominated actors? Check. An up-and-comer in the cast ready to seize the spotlight? Check. Period setting? Check. About important historical figure(s)? Check. Regal costumes and stuffy grammar? Check. Acclaimed director in his/her prime? Check. The inescapable feeling that one or more of the principles involved in the film is “due?” Check.

Sadly, the moment people heard about A Dangerous Method last spring proved to be the film’s highpoint, and it all went downhill from there. That moment was when people constructed a movie in their heads that would contend for Best Picture, and oh was it marvelous. But that’s not the movie that reached theatres.

When I went to the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, A Dangerous Method was the film I was most excited to see. And I did see it. And I was severely disappointed. It turns out I was one of those people that constructed a Best Picture winner in my head, and I immediately knew that fabricated idea didn’t match what I saw on screen.

People always have perceptions of what a movie will be like before they see it, and it always sucks when the reality falls short of the expectation. Usually we create these perceptions from previews and advertising campaigns. (One whackjob lady in Michigan even sued the marketing team for Drive when it didn’t meet her expectations.) But sometimes, the perceptions are created simply from knowing who’s involved with the movie. When we hear sentences with the names Clint Eastwood, Leonardo DiCaprio, and J. Edgar Hoover, seeing a preview isn’t required to get us salivating with anticipation. And the truly unfortunate part is that a film’s awards potential doesn’t necessarily depend on quality, but rather it depends on whether expectations were met.

When I saw A Dangerous Method last September, I was incredibly disappointed by it, because it failed to amaze me. I expected it to be one of the best films of the year, but it wasn’t. I immediately knew it wasn’t going to be a Best Picture nominee. The running time was too brief, key events in the story were glossed over too quickly, and there was no edge to the movie. This was incredibly ironic for a director whose reputation was built upon how psychologically edgy his films usually were. A movie about psychology turned out to be one of the least psychological things he’d made. But, I did think the film featured fantastic acting by its three leads, particularly Knightley, who gave the best performance of her career.

But when the awards conversation started picking up steam after Thanksgiving and the individual races began taking clearer shape, Knightley was conspicuously absent from things. I saw A Dangerous Method again last week, because I wanted to see 1) whether I would still find the movie disappointing without the weight of expectation (reviews had been fairly positive), and 2) how the acting measured up now that I basically knew who was getting nominated instead.

And I’m glad I saw the movie a second time. I still found it disappointing for the exact same reasons that I listed last September, but the movie managed to surge past an existence that was defined solely by missed expectations. It was never less than interesting and captivating, the dialogue was quite good, the performances were just as I had remembered them, and the score suddenly revealed itself as being truly wonderful. More than anything on the second go ‘round, the movie just struck me as a missed opportunity. Had it been longer and more focused, it really could have been special. As it was, it had to settle for merely good.

But that’s the thing, it didn’t settle for good; it settled for disappointing. See, I wasn’t the only person in Toronto that wrote about how A Dangerous Method was underwhelming. The receptions films receive often create their own narratives, which can sometimes have a life of their own. While no one came out of Toronto calling the movie bad, enough people called it a let down that the movie’s Oscar chances were all but killed.

One of the sad facts of the Oscars is that the categories tend to have an ordered hierarchy, and when a film gets knocked off of a level, it typically gets knocked off of every level below. If a film is expected to be in the Best Picture race, but falls short, that failure tends to resonate downwards and kill the film’s chances in any other category as well. It happened with A Dangerous Method, and it also happened this year with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Both films were initially expected to be in the Best Picture conversation, and when they fell out of that conversation, they took every other potential nomination with them on their way out the door. That’s how Dragon Tattoo managed to inexplicably fall out of the Orignal Score and Adapted Screenplay races as well—two categories in which a nomination should have been assured. Missing out on nominations in those categories had nothing to do with merit; It was about the tendency for people to ignore movies that fall short of expectations. (Rooney Mara still managed a nomination anyways because enough attention circulated her role that the performance was impossible to forget about.)

And it’s really too bad that awards perception works that way, because it elevates how a film is received as being more important than the film itself. People expected A Dangerous Method to be Great and it wasn’t, so the movie got written off. Meanwhile, no one expected Iron Lady to be good, they just expected Streep to be great in it. She was great, so expectations were met, and she received a nomination even though the movie sucked. The way her film was received didn’t let her down, because there was no weight of expectation placed on it. After all, it was by the hack that directed Mama Mia, so greatness wasn’t exactly on the table. A Dangerous Method was a much better movie than The Iron Lady, and I remain convinced that Keira Knightley gave the best lead actress performance of 2011. But none of that mattered. No one went to A Dangerous Method to see a Keira Knightley performance; they went to see a great movie. As soon as it didn’t deliver, the performances ceased to matter as well.

In general, it’s unfortunate that all movies tend to be increasingly defined by exactly two things: awards potential and franchise potential. As home entertainment keeps getting better and better, and going to the movies continues to devolve into a niche activity, people have gradually stopped seeing anything that won’t spawn either sequels, prequels, or Oscar nominations. The result of this practice is that it takes the concept of success away from the viewer. It no longer matters if movies are good, only if they have potential for little gold statues or happy meal toys. And that definition of success is depressingly narrow. It’s why I do a Top 25 list every year instead of the typical top 10—because I don’t like to believe that the national conversation on film has to be so limited. A Dangerous Method wasn’t one of the ten best movies of the year, and it’s probably not even in my top 25. But it is interesting and enjoyable, and it deserved better than to be so quickly discarded by people as just another would-be Oscar movie. I’m obviously just as guilty as anyone else that levied that label against it, but I think I’ve learned my lesson. To only view movies based on their potential for recognition is to entirely miss the point of seeing them. And I love watching movies far too much to miss the point.


  1. Another good point about expectations was Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol...no one had any expectations of it being anything more than a nice x-mas popcorn flick, but ended up being one the of best movies of the year (EW head film critic Owen Gleiberman picked it as the 10th best movie of the year on his 2011 year end list)

    1. I agree. I had somewhat high hopes for MI:GP because of Brad Bird, but I never imagined it would be as good as it was. It very well might be in my top ten of 2011 as well, which will be posted here later this week.