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Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Director: Brandon Cronenberg
Stars:: Caleb Landry Jones, Sarah Gadon, Malcolm McDowell, Douglas Smith
Running time: 110 minutes
In making Antiviral, his feature film debut, Brandon Cronenberg stepped into the director's chair with the filmmaking equivalent of an 0-2 count in baseball, with bases loaded. Before a single frame appears on screen, there's already an enormous, and, frankly, unfair, amount of pressure on the guy, simply because he's the son of the inimitable David Cronenberg. And Antiviral, with its body horror themes and surrealistic qualities, evokes the kinds of movies his dad was making decades ago, genre classics like The Fly and Videodrome. Now that Daddy Cronenberg is busy shooting costume dramas (A Dangerous Method) and strange, talkative character studies with minimal to no grotesqueries (Cosmopolis), there's been an opening for at least one more dose of old-school Cronenbergian entertainment. Can Antiviral fill that void?
Proving to be well-equipped for the pressures associated with the project, Brandon Cronenberg succeeds with nearly flying colors, constructing an original, slickly visualized, and entirely unsettling look at how far our culture's obsessions with celebrities could one day go. Antiviral takes place set in a not-so-futuristic world where doctors, specifically those working at The Lucas Clinic, treat patients who pay thousands of dollars to have their favorite famous person's diseases injected into them; what better way to truly become "close" to that gorgeous actress you've always fancied, or the star athlete you've always wanted to emulate?
The man with the needle is Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones), a Lucas Clinic technician who's surgical when it comes to sweet-talking patients into choosing illnesses like herpes. He's also constantly off-balance, working several things out at once in his head and glancing at his colleagues and clients with cynicism and morbid fascination. Syd has a secret celebrity crush of his own, though: Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon), the beautiful, seductive blonde ingenue who makes trips to China to obtain orphans and has his face plastered on hundreds of billboards and other advertisements. One day, Syd gets the call to visit a sickly Hannah and take some of her current ailment out, via hypodermic stinger, for the Lucas Clinic's newest batch of money-spenders. But, without anyone else knowing, Syd sticks the needle full of Hannah's disease into himself. And then Hannah suddenly dies.
With those narrative pieces all set into motion, Antiviral wickedly spirals off into odd, unexpected places, some in which Cronenberg gladly satiates his father's rabid fan base; one demonic hallucination, in particular, presents an exhibition of otherworldly sadomasochism, and later into the film, dark-red blood pours of mouths like mini geysers. To Cronenberg's credit, none of Antiviral's icky imagery feels gratuitous; it's all rooted into the story's conceits and furthers the plot along, even if said plot progresses at an intentionally slow, hypnotic pace. In a nifty demonstration of tactical set design, Cronenberg relies heavily upon almost luminescent white backgrounds, which lull the viewer's eyes into a subdued submission and allow the director to work his manipulative magic.
Most crucial to selling all of Antiviral's eccentricities is Jones, a wiry, scarecrow-like presence who looks unhinged at every give second and nails the character's balance of natural creepiness and subtle vulnerability. Through prolonged, piercing stares, the film's star physically embodies Antiviral's icy tone without any noticeable effort; it's a performance that, if awards season pundits gave a damn about unabashed genre fare of this variety, could at least snag an Independent Spirit nomination.
And, that being said, the same goes for young Brandon Cronenberg as a director. Even when his script falters, mainly through a sluggish, overlong final act that flirts with comparisons to a doesn't-know-when-to-wrap-it-up Saturday Night Live sketch, Cronenberg's eye for striking, fever dream images is impeccable. Antiviral has an unnerving mood and anything-goes energy that's all its own, made all the more impressive when one remembers that it's Cronenberg's first film. His future looks incredibly bright, even if he only reinstates his dad's vintage horror-of-the-flesh spirit this one time.
Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)