There may not be a bigger living name in horror than Cronenberg. I don’t mean to say that David Cronenberg is the most influential living horror filmmaker (that distinction probably goes to John Carpenter), nor am I saying that he is necessarily the greatest (a question it is presently too early in the morning for me to tackle). But that name, Cronenberg, carries with it more weight and specific meaning than just about any other in the genre. When “Cronenberg” comes up in a sentence, it conjures a very defined (and often unpleasant) set of images: bodies turned inside out, grotesque tools of indeterminate (but clearly malevolent) purpose, aloof men peering through wire-framed glasses at unspeakable horrors, imposing blocks of brutalist Canadian architecture. “Cronenbergian” sits comfortably in the lexicon of film, next to Hitchcockian and Felliniesque and any other canonized figure you learned about in film school. Cronenberg is, in the parlance of our times, a brand.
You’ll notice I’ve been saying “Cronenberg” here, and not “David Cronenberg.” Beginning with 2012’s Antiviral and continuing through 2020’s Possessor, the director’s son, Brandon Cronenberg, has taken up the family business of sickly, cerebral body horror (I had assumed he had picked up that mantle entirely until David made his full-bore return to the genre with last year’s Crimes of the Future). The younger Cronenberg’s body of work (no pun intended) is certainly of a piece with that of his father, but, as Infinity Pool proves, it is its own, thrillingly distinct animal.
Alexander Skarsgård plays James Foster, a novelist who, along with his wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman) takes a vacation at a luxury resort on the fictional, impoverished tropical island Pol Qlqa. James’ debut novel (the hilariously titled The Variable Sheep) made something of a splash, but that was six years ago, and James hopes that his holiday might break his writer’s block. He finds a fan in Gabi (Mia Goth), a British actress who specializes in “failing naturally”– she’s the woman at the beginning of an infomercial struggling with the old, outdated product (“Each act of failure is a mental and physical puzzle,” she says of her craft). Gabi and her husband Alban (Jalil Lespert) invite James and Em to sneak away to an off-resort beach, but the night takes a turn when James accidentally hits and kills a pedestrian (this being a product of the Cronenberg family, there is of course a close-up of the victim’s gaping, sputtering head wound). Soon the authorities arrive at James’ hotel room and haul him off to a dingy police station. It’s clear from James’ expression that he believes his life is now over, but it’s unlikely he could have possibly anticipated what happens next.
The legal system in Pol Qlqa, you see, possesses a quirk: if you kill someone, you are instantly sentenced to death at the hands of a member of the victim’s family (in this case, James’ assigned assassin is a small boy with a large knife). However, wealthy suspects can pay to create a perfect clone of themselves to die in their stead; they can then watch the proceedings from a set of well-worn bleachers, and are allowed to keep a commemorative urn containing their double’s ashes as a souvenir. James and Em are understandably horrified, but Gabi and Alban are delighted; they invite James to their inner circle, who commit crimes purely for the thrill of watching “themselves” be executed. I won’t reveal what happens next (and I’m not sure I could if I wanted to), but suffice to say James’ nightmare has only just begun.
It is, of course, easy to lump Cronenberg’s work together with that of his father, but it’s probably more illustrative to focus on the differences. For one thing, while no one would likely accuse the films of David Cronenberg of being soft, there is a harshness to Brandon’s work which sets it apart, a hard-edged bleakness which might make even seasoned horror fans flinch. For all his goopiness, the elder Cronenberg approaches many of his films with a sort of cockeyed bemusement; even in something as chilly and foreboding as Crash, one can sense an odd sort of affection for his automotively-obsessed deviants. When Brandon Cronenberg aims to shock, on the other hand, it’s easy to tell that he means it. Both the executions and the crimes themselves in Infinity Pool are graphic and upsetting, and not always in a way that gives itself to giddy thrills. When you walk out of a David Cronenberg film, there’s a good chance you’ll have a ghoulish grin on your face; after one of Brandon’s, you may need to sit down for a while.
This is not to say that Infinity Pool is humorless; on the contrary, it’s got more than a dollop of the broad, eat-the-rich satire of Triangle of Sadness or Glass Onion. Gabi’s circle of execution-enthusiast friends are exactly the sort of wealthy, WASPy, affluenza*-beset douchebags who exploit real-life locals in far more subtle and normalized ways every vacation season (in one hilarious bit, a well-dressed woman goes full Karen on her arresting officer because they’ve been stuck in the cloning office waiting room for hours). Goth, fresh off a very good 2022, is clearly having a ball, particularly once Gabi drops her doe-eyed sex kitten act and begins reveling in her own debauchery; a late scene in which she enjoys a fried chicken picnic on the hood of a moving convertible is especially memorable. And Skarsgård embodies a very specific sort of dashing-yet-hapless white collar buffoon– imagine the smarminess of a late-career Cary Elwes character injected into the matinee-idol body of an early one. Even before their respective ordeals, one can imagine James Foster would have a lot to talk about with Saw’s Dr. Lawrence Gordon.
Like Possessor, Infinity Pool is an excellent movie, but one which I will likely be very selective as to whom I recommend it. Fortunately, there’s that word again, which makes the task much easier. If someone recoils at the name “Cronenberg,” they should obviously stay away from this movie, and that probably goes double if they respond with a blank stare. Even among those who respond to the name favorably, there will likely be a fair percentage which find it to be overly long and muddled in its message (gun to my head, I’m not sure I could succinctly describe what exactly Cronenberg is saying here). But it is an utterly wild piece of work, filled with enough outrageous ideas, visuals, and set pieces to float several films. Brandon Cronenberg’s films might not be a 1:1 match with his father’s but one thing is clear: the name “Cronenberg” will retain its potency and relevance for at least one more generation.
* – Confession time: the last time I referenced affluenza, the so-called affliction which rescued teenage vehicular-manslaughterer Ethan Couch from prison in 2013, I mistakenly referred to it as “entitlitus,” a fictional ailment of more or less the same description from a 1995 Mr. Show sketch. We are rapidly approaching the singularity at which satire will be rendered fully redundant by reality.
dir. Brandon Cronenberg
Opens Friday, 1/27 @ Somerville Theatre (and most multiplexes)