There is no doubt that no matter what Brandon Cronenberg decided to make as his first movie, the shadow of his father would loom large. So whether it just runs in the family, or if it was a calculated decision to do something audiences would expect from the Cronenberg mantle, full credit to Brandon for taking body horror to the next level with “Antiviral.” While hardly perfect, it delivers the freak fest that fans of David have been missing for the past few years while establishing Brandon as a filmmaker with a bright future.
A constantly glowering, long haired Caleb Landry Jones leads the picture as Syd March, an employee of the Lucas Clinic who trade in a rather bizarre business. In the world of the film, celebrity obsession has jumped a few levels, and Lucas allows clients to inject themselves with the same virus or illness their favorite stars catch. A unique scientific development allows Lucas to modify the diseases so they’re not contagious. But of course, as with any trade involving pharmaceuticals, there’s a black market, and Syd has carved out a unique niche. Using his own body as a vessel to smuggle diseases out of Lucas, Syd hooks up with Arvid (Joe Pingue), a twisted butcher who deals in cuts of meat grown from celebrity cells, to sell his pilfered wares.
Syd’s game is a dangerous one, but in a world where the body is just another commodity, it’s not beyond reason that he doesn’t have much regard for his own health. After a collegue is fired for engaging in the same sort of shady dealings, Syd is sent on a house call to the hotel room of the beautiful and famous Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon). Lucas has the exclusive rights to her sickness, and they’re eager to get a sample of the disease that has nearly killed her. Of course, Syd realizes there’ll be tremendous interest from his own clientele and injects himself with her sample. But Hannah winds up dead, and Syd is sent tumbling down a rabbit hole where he has to survive long enough to cure himself, all while navigating a rapidly unfolding conspiracy.
Brandon Cronenberg is clearly eager to make a name for himself and like most young film directors, “Antiviral” is bursting with visual flourishes and ideas. Cronenberg adopts a sterile aesthetic — there are a lot of white, minimalist rooms — a deeply mannered storytelling technique from the performances to the pacing, which recalls Julia Leigh‘s “Sleeping Beauty” to a certain degree (the opening title treatment is not unlike “Antichrist” either). But unfortunately, these tics get in the way of the movie. Specifically, the film’s momentum and sense of suspense is constantly being held back, rather than enhanced by the actors’ delivery. And this isn’t helped by a script that takes nearly half the running the time before the story really gets moving.
But where Cronenberg really shines are in the ideas he brings to the table. While Matteo Garrone struggled to say anything new about celebrity with his recent “Reality,” “Antiviral” delivers the satire that was absent from that film. “Antivral” is morbidly funny, using the current panty shot/cell phone pic-driven media world as a launching pad to an absurd new place that he makes you believe could be somewhat possible. The tone toes the line well, expertly both acknowledging the surreal nature of the premise, while leaning just enough on this side of reality that one could see it as somehow happening down the road. “Celebrities are not people, they’re group hallucinations,” Syd’s boss says at one point, and there’s more than a kernel of truth in that observation.
Though it takes a bit of time to get rolling, and while it’s flawed in ways that many first features are, Brandon’s first film shows tremendous promise. The second half is where “Antiviral” really shows off his stuff, with a deliciously dark streak and an undeniably unique narrative that goes to some fascinating, twisted places. It’s exactly the oddball and crooked tale you’d want and expect from a Cronenberg with all the gratuitous blood, pus, bone and multiple closeups of needles piercing skin you could ask for. Dad would be proud. [B-]
This is a reprint of our review from the Cannes Film Festival.