Being the son of a famous artist can certainly have its drawbacks, and the most pronounced for Brandon “Son of David” Cronenberg will undoubtedly be certain expectations that he will take up his father’s filmmaking tricks and become a great in his own right. Especially difficult for Cronenberg Jr. will be some of his father’s fans’ unwillingness to forget former successes, and perpetually demand that he make Videodrome again, and the inevitability that they might now turn to him for that opportunity.
But it doesn’t necessarily have to be such a concern, because based on the experience of Antiviral – included in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes film fest – the son of The Fly director has every intention of following in his father’s oddly-shaped footprints.
In Antiviral, the outraged near-future sci-fi set in a world whose celebrity obsession has taken it to the next, deeply disturbed level, Caleb Landry Jones plays Syd, an employee in a clinic specializing in the sales and transmission of viruses grown on the skin of celebrities to their fans. This, the film suggests is the next natural step for our own celebrity drip-feed culture – creating a new kind of bond between fans and their idols.
As the narrative progresses, it is established that Syd is not quite the mindlessly obedient employee he seems, as he steals celebrity infections from uber-star Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon) for his own personal gain, and as a consequence finds himself embroiled in a tale of a murder mystery story in which he is the victim. There are multiple other levels, with intrigue after intrigue being unravelled as Syd’s investigation and infection both develop, and the revulsion gauge creeps towards maximum. Along the way he meets a cornucopia of sanitized freaks, from the fans who want nothing more than to be infected, to those who seek to profit financially from the industry, and collectors like Dr. Abendroth (Malcolm McDowell).
It is a body shock sci-fi infused horror concept that David himself would surely have been proud of, and perhaps now the appearance of Brandon, with his own advancement of the Cronenberg Body Shock Method will offer the elder Cronenberg some respite from those calls for him to return to Videodrome territory. Mercifully for those die-hard bodyshock fans, the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree.
Cronenberg’s visual aesthetic creates a sanitised environment, all pristine white surfaces and immaculately tailored suits, as the backdrop for Syd’s physical degeneration, which helps to amplify the impact of the film’s more squirm-inducing sequences. The film’s clinical environments also make for a perverse contradiction – the narrative suggesting a perverse, body shock noir, but almost every scene bathed in unforgiving bright light.
The aesthetic also gives Cronenberg a blank canvas to make his more grotesque sequences more pronounced; bloody reds given added impact by contrast, just as Syd’s crumbling body is denounced as unwelcome and alien in the clean clinical worlds he invades along his story arc. It is a clever trick in a film that showcases the director’s ability and willingness to make shots that are more than purely functional, and while a lot of the scenes are sparse, there is enough here to suggest that Cronenberg can have a strong future ahead of him.
Caleb Landry Jones is very strong in the lead role, adding an unexpressed, brooding darkness below the surface of his character that enjoys a creepy payoff right at the end, and then coping wonderfully with the extraneous physical demands of his deterioration. His pain feels authentic, and the actor also almost manages that irresistible dangerous charm that Christian Bale brought to American Psycho.
In some ways, Cronenberg’s debut has a lot in common with Mary Harron’s urban horror: the duplicitous but charismatic lead character who doesn’t quite fit and who goes through massive deterioration, the ying-yang of aesthetic and content, the shocking punctuations of bodily violence and the way that film positions the audience as complicit voyeurs.
But with Antiviral, rather than being complicit with any character’s actions or horrific crimes, it is Cronenberg himself who takes the position of grand, deranged puppet master. The frequent, close-up shots of slow needle penetration, the occasional harrowing bout of bodily trauma, the near torrential flow of blood: all are shot with perverse pornographic fascination – the director willing us to be revolted.
The film is without doubt one of the most provocatively sensory films seen since the heyday of The Fly, with Cronenberg’s visuals amplified by a viscerally affecting score which devolves into raw white-noise after a while and makes for an uncomfortable experience. And even Syd’s bodily functions are amplified as part of that grotesque orchestral accompaniment, his breathing, chewing, swallowing, and spluttering all louder than a conventional mix would dare in order to encourage the audience’s disgust with the bodies emblazoned on screen.
You’ll wince, you’ll gasp, you’ll even laugh at the director’s audacity at including some of the more outrageously grotesque shots, but most of all you will be affected down to your core on more than one occasion. And even when the film drags a little in the middle, or the actual entertainment factor wanes somewhat, that makes Antiviral a success in terms of what Brandon Cronenberg clearly wants to achieve with it.
Bravo, sir, you out-Cronenberged your own dear Dad.
The Upside: For Cronenberg fans, the prodigal son’s debut will be a revivalist gem, for everyone else, it’ll seem more than a little weird.
The Downside: It could have been shorter, with shots of Jones writhing in acute agony taking up at least twenty minutes on their own.