Title: AntiviralDirector: Brandon Cronenberg
Starring: Caleb Landry Jones, Sarah Gadon, Malcom McDowell, Douglas Smith, Joe Pingue, Nicholas Campbell, James Cade, Lara Jean Chorostecki
Plot: Syd March (Jones) is an employee at the Lucas clinic selling injections of live viruses harvested from sick celebrities to their obsessed fans. Syd unknown to his employers also has a sideline supplying illegal samples of these viruses to piracy groups, smuggling them from the clinic in his own body. However when he becomes infected with the disease that kills super sensation Hannah Geist (Gadon), Syd must unravel the mystery surrounding her death before he suffers the same fate.
Review: It’s always going to be difficult for the offspring of a famous director when they decide to follow in their parents footsteps and throw their hat into the directorial ring. Meanwhile the more cynical critics eagerly await the first opportunity to draw comparisons between their work and that of their more established parent, while often covering for their stalled attempts at breaking into directing by sneering that the sole reason they are able to make their film is due to their parents legacy. It’s an attitude I try to avoid when faced with these circumstances….well except when its the likes of the intolerable Peaches Geldof.
Thankfully safe to say he has made an intriguing debut to say the least, while one which at the same time seems equally at home amongst the familiar themes of his father, especially seeing how the two seem to share a love for the themes of infection and mutation, which have served his father so well over the course of his career and it is something very key to this film which fully embraces them with the same warped fascination Cronenberg snr. does. Equally at the same time he has also found certainly unique way of exploring society’s on going obsession with celebrity as the Lucas company deals on a warped version of these celebrity obsessions, were obsessed fans can for a price be infected with the same diseases as their idols. Still it would seem it is not enough to just peddle these celebrity diseases, seeing how the company employees have turned their trade in disease and infection into what could almost be seen as an art form, as especially seen during a scene in which Syd is shown advising one client one the best location to receive a shot of a celebrity herpes to replicate contracting said disease through a kiss.
Set in what could only be perceived as being the near future, seeing how Cronenberg doesn’t seem to have much of an interest in doing anything to assign a particular date to things, mixing things up frequently by combining shots of the sterile white minimalist offices of the Lucas clinic with essentially the flipside which in this case is the downtown traders who deal in celebrity steaks in an environment much like a butchers shop, only here dealing in manufactured celebrity flesh than any of the more traditional sources, something which trader Avid (Pringue) assures Syd that it’s not quite cannibalism – But they’ll get there soon enough. Despite playing both sides of the celebrity disease trade, Syd is still a low level player on either side, but given a chance to take a sample from his employer’s biggest client Hannah Geist he soon finds himself in a situation he is far from equipped to deal with, especially when Geist suddenly dies. This of course is a situation only made worst by the fact that Syd intentionally infects himself with the diseases he is smuggling, leading him not only a desperate quest to find out what exactly she was infected with, but also caught up in a game of industrial espionage, as both sides try to claim the virus he is carrying.
Bizarrely considering this is his main plotline, things are played surprisingly straightforward and at times perhaps alittle more underplayed than I would have liked, especially when he only occasionally throws in a surprise twist to maintain the audiences interest, with more of his focus seemingly on the more surreal moments of the film which includes a random biomechanical transformation seemingly coming out of nowhere while the tone he has chosen here is decidedly icy throughout while he is at the same time clearly striving to carve out his own film making identity still manages to draw comparisons to the later films of his father. However throughout Cronenberg is keen to not take things to far into the fantastic realm, while allowing himself a brief fantastical moment, by giving his virus’s a blurred face as part of a copy protection system, due to diseases being viewed as highly guarded intellectual property.
While the subject matter might present every opportunity for gooey visuals, things are surprisingly kept fairly restrained and with none of the grotesque and warped flesh which made his father’s work so memorable. Despite this what gore we do get is effectively used with Cronenberg’s sterile whites only appearing more effective when used as the background from the frequent splashes of crimson blood, while the main focus is clearly with the slowly deteriorating condition of Syd. Still by showing this restraint he does keep the focus with the plot, rather than distracting the audience with imaginative visuals.
The real strength of the film though comes from the casting of Jones, who might at first sight might seem like the cheaper alternative to casting Michael Pritt, with whom he shares a strikingly similar resemblance to. Still despite Jones not having the same star power, especially with his most memorable role to date being as Banshee in “X Men: First Class”, yet despite this he fully embodies the role of Syd, taking on an almost vampire like persona with his pasty white skin and social awkwardness, never smiling and with his sole focus on life being with the sale of his biological wares, rather than anything resembling a life outside of his trade, especially when the closest we see that he has to a friend being with underground trader Avid.
Elsewhere Cronenberg has managed to assembled an equally strong supporting cast, which includes Malcom McDowell (who seems to be trying to currently beat Nicolas Cage for sheer workload) in a brief but none the less effective appearance. Though with Cronenberg putting such focus on Syd, most supporting characters do tend to get overshadowed, especially with Jones giving such a fascinating performance which makes me eager to see what he does next especially with his career at this point only just beginning.
I guess my main issue with this film is that essentially nothing really happens and while it might be all very pretty to look at with the ideas well handled it still makes a testing watch for the less open minded movie goer and even with Cronenberg trimming six minutes off the original run time it can still at times be a an infuriating watch. Nevertheless it is still a fascinating debut and one which shows him keen to establish his own style even if his choice to work with such similar subject matter to his father makes him open to comparison still, while leaving me curious to see how he follows it up.