It’s on for Jung and old in David Cronenberg‘s A Dangerous Method, where pioneering psychoanalysts go head to head and discover that a Freud in need is a Freud indeed. If puns are the lowest form of comedy (a suggestion I dispute, but for argument’s sake…) then letter writing must be the least compelling form of drama. Unfortunately, that is the primary way in which Cronenberg depicts the struggle between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), an experimental analyst, and his spurned father figure, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), who is desperate to find a suitable disciple to carry on his work.

It’s a surprisingly static piece from a formerly ferocious filmmaker, mercifully made watchable by its central actors. The cast includes Vincent Cassel as an incredibly ethically dubious doctor (I can’t recall a performance of his that wasn’t ethically dubious, but how can we be disappointed with this typecasting when he’s so good at it?), as well as Keira Knightley, who astounds as the hysterical Russian Sabina Spielrein. She’s a would-be therapist with a skeleton that seems to be quite literally engineering an escape from her skin; if she had completely morphed into The Fly mid jaw-jut, I would not have been surprised. Knightley goes for it. That point is not up for debate.

The really juicy stuff here is the increasing divide between Jung and Freud, whose varied interpretation of the same craft – as well as their raging egos – saw them splinter off and create opposing factions that still exist to this day. Screenwriter Christopher Hampton (adapting his own stage play The Talking Cure) wouldn’t want to invent opportunities for them to argue and break ties in person; fastidious fact-finders would have a field day. However, the movie inevitably suffers by keeping the two of them nations apart while resentment festers. Fassbender and Mortensen can narrate dismissive, cutting communiqués with the best of them (and no one can scoff quite like Mortensen) but the final act is particularly lacking in dramaturgical drive.

Though the Canadian auteur continues to deviate from the world of body horror with this European jaunt, he can’t quite shake off the shackles of deviance. Jung famously engaged in a scandalous affair – built on masochism, destruction, and general freaky-deakiness – with his patient and protégé Sabina Spielrein. The duo’s doomed relationship takes center stage, and while that offers up the kind of creepy, carnal delights we usually enjoy in a Cronenberg flick, I found myself more intrigued by the matters of the mind that are more fleetingly addressed.