Brandon Cronenberg’s debut feature, in the entirety of its composition, could easily have been made by his legendary filmmaker father himself; it is exact, boasts beautifully grimy visuals, a deliberate pace, and discordant score, as are common traits of David Cronenberg’s wonderful array of delightfully disturbing works, if less so lately. Though Cronenberg Jr. doesn’t strive to carve out a unique niche for himself away from his father’s well-cornered market, Antiviral is in fact a far more disarming and interesting effort than either of Cronenberg Sr.’s latest films (Cosmopolis and A Dangerous Method).
Antiviral is blessed with a demented, ingenious concept; celebrity saturation is at an all-time high, to the point where we have largely abandoned our own sense of identity. In order to get “closer” to celebrities, people are now infecting themselves with their favourite actor’s or singer’s illnesses; an injection with herpes – which is incurable – will give you a permanent link to them for the rest of your life. In this speculative future, the cult of celebrity has been commodified to an unsettling extent; people are now even bigger brands than before, with the unlikeness of products bearing their names. Most disturbing are steaks grown from the muscle cells of the celebrities themselves.
Various snippets of vapid celebrity TV hammer home the film’s themes; one resounding sound-byte sticks in the mind – “celebrities aren’t people, they’re a collective hallucination”. Such is this pull that even one of the clinic’s employees, Syd (Caleb Landry Jones) ends up drinking the Kool Aid, enamoured with one of his company’s celebrity faces, Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon), and injecting himself with her recent illness. However, when she turns up dead, he desperately seeks out a way to avoid the same fate himself.
Caleb Landry Jones is a quietly intense performer who came out of nowhere, and if this role is any indication, might well be headed for stardom; his pallid complexion blends effortlessly into the brilliant white walls of the facility, accentuating the phantom-like quality with which his personal and professional life is inexplicably bound. Complimenting his performance are bracingly inventive sci-fi quirks, such as “Fluid Face”, a program the clinic uses to copy-protect viruses and render them in-contagious. Meanwhile, production design and cinematography are stunning; Syd’s blindingly white apartment only reinforces the banal sterility with which he and others live their lives, dispassionately hooked into the myth of the celebrity, who appears here as our new God. Cronenberg’s script is also suffused with enough gallows humour to prevent it from feeling overly grim; note as Syd is admonished for being “miserly” late in the day when he’s reluctant to hand some of his infected blood over.
For all of it’s stylistic tricks, it’s Jones’ performance holds the entire thing together; composed, smouldering, and then violently explosive while heading towards a grimly comical ending, an ultimate statement on our collective morbidity. Simply, this is delirious, visionary filmmaking of a high order; an insidious, sinewy thriller and the best film made by anyone named Cronenberg in quite a while.
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