ANTIVIRAL – Fantastic Fest Review
As an avid fan of the works of filmmaker David Cronenberg, I found myself fully committed to absorbing the feature film debut from his son, Brandon Cronenberg… for better or for worse. Fortunately, it paid off and I can honestly say that the Cronenberg name is becoming synonymous with daring, experimental film of a high caliber, beyond that of the founding father. ANTIVIRAL is a mesmerizing science-fiction film of one possible societal shift of the not-so-distant future.
Whether or not Brandon wishes to admit or acknowledge the influence of his father’s work on his own, this influence is clearly evident in ANTIVIRAL. I want only to point this out up front, but will refrain from making this the focus of my case for the film. From the elements of body horror, to the use of a fever dream and even distorted video displays of the human form, the truth lies in the film itself. However, Brandon doesn’t merely settle with making a film reminiscent of his father’s legacy, but expands upon it, making it his own. Brandon’s concept is his own, revealing his voice for the first time as a feature film writer and director with a bizarre bravado.
As writer, Brandon Cronenberg tackles some intriguing — even controversial — subject matter, transporting us into a society so utterly engrossed in celebrity worship that fans pay good money to a corporate clinic to be infected by a strain of viral illness collected directly from their celebrity of choice in an effort to become intimately closer on a biological level. This is the central product upon which the film revolves, but audiences get a broader taste of this twisted trend as the story progresses.
Caleb Landry Jones (X-MEN: FIRST CLASS) plays Syd March, a young salesman of sorts for Lucas Clinic, pushing the latest of celebrity viruses on demanding fans, willing to feed their obsession. Hannah Geist, played by Sarah Gadon, is Lucas Clinics’ biggest money maker, but her most recent viral illness is proving far more serious than anyone expected. This becomes a significant problem for Syd, not just because she’s the Clinic’s cash cow, but because Syd has been skimming off the top to bank some cash on the side. This is particularly troubling as his method of smuggling consequently brings himself closer to the celebrity whose virus he is smuggling.
ANTIVIRAL features a sterile, white-washed corporate atmosphere while Syd is at the clinic, set against the grimy underbelly of the black market with which he is tangled smuggling the celebrity contraband to his fence, the owner of a delicatessen of the strangest order who deals in distributing exclusive viral illnesses to the masses. E.C. Woodley provides a fitting score to accompany the visual dynamics of cinematographer Karim Hussain.
Caleb Landry Jones truly captures the enigmatic nature of Syd, complete with the internal struggle that infects both his conscience and his body. Syd is clearly not a devoted supporter of the industry within which he works, nor is he rebelling against it. As Arvid (Joe Pingue), his delicatessen fence points out, perhaps Syd is in denial of his own deep-seeded obsession with Hannah. This peculiar imperfection in his master plan of making his own way drives Syd down a less certain and far more nefarious path as he uncovers a hidden agenda put into play by certain players.
Visually, ANTIVIRAL engages the viewer on multiple layers, including some impressive but low-key special effects and a unique use of flesh and the human cellular material in only a handful of creative applications. These scenes, however, particularly the final scene, may warrant a word of caution for the squeamish regarding human blood, not in excess, but in context. Perhaps the only thing I can legitimately make a case for improving would be a slight tightening of the pace, but not much, and the absence of any further fever dreams beyond the one and only example involving Syd becoming one with machine.