Brandon Cronenberg's new body-horror nightmare turns a lavish island holiday into a hypnotic and piercing sci-fi stunner.
May 11, 2023
Making his latest body-horror spectacle an eat-the-rich sci-fi satire as well, Brandon Cronenberg couldn't have given Infinity Pool a better title. Teardowns of the wealthy and entitled now seem to flow on forever, glistening endlessly against the film and television horizon; however, the characters in this particularly savage addition to the genre might wish they were in The White Lotus or Succession instead. In those two hits, having more money than sense doesn't mean witnessing your own bloody execution but still living to tell the tale. It doesn't see anyone caught up in cloning at its most vicious and macabre, either. And, it doesn't involve dipping into a purgatory that sports the Antiviral and Possessor filmmaker's penchant for futuristic corporeal terrors, as clearly influenced by his father David Cronenberg (see: Crimes of the Future, Videodrome and The Fly), while also creating a surreal hellscape that'd do Twin Peaks great David Lynch, Climax's Gaspar Noe and The Neon Demon's Nicolas Winding Refn proud.
Succession veteran Alexander Skarsgård plunges into Infinity Pool's torments playing another member of the one percent, this time solely by marriage. "Where are we?", author James Foster asks his wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman, Dopesick) while surveying the gleaming surfaces, palatial villas and scenic beaches on the fictional island nation of Li Tolqa — a question that keeps silently pulsating throughout the movie, and also comes tinged with the reality that James once knew a life far more routine than this cashed-up extravagance. Cronenberg lets his query linger from the get-go, with help from returning Possessor cinematographer Karim Hussain. Within minutes, the feature visually inverts its stroll through its lavish setting, the camera circling and lurching. As rafters spin into view, then tumble into the pristine sky, no one in this film's frames is in Kansas anymore.
The couple's temporary home away from home boasts luxury extending as far as the eye can see, but affluent holidaymakers are fenced in by barbed wire and armed guards from the surrounding country. They're deep-pocketed westerners in an exclusive resort haven in an otherwise poor, religious and conservative country, and local protesters aren't afraid to interrupt their paid-for idyll. Still, James and Em are vacationing to hopefully cure his six-year stint of writer's block, after he's struggled to back up his debut novel The Variable Sheath — and that text, which was published thanks to Em's media-tycoon father, struggled to make a literary impact at all. Amid their languid stay, and as Em can barely tell if James is awake or asleep, neither are expecting fellow guest Gabi (Mia Goth, Pearl) to gush praise; "I loved your book," the outgoing stranger and actor tells him, then invites them to dinner with her husband Alban (Jalil Lespert, Beasts), then for an illicit drive and picnic beyond the gates the following day.
An unsettling sensation hangs in the air as Gabi pushes her new pals to share her company, relishes being the centre of attention and steals an explicit moment with James on their forbidden jaunt. Writing as well as directing, Cronenberg mists uncertainty and menace in the air earlier, when the hotel hosts a festival celebrating the upcoming monsoon season — an event where masks resembling melted faces are a key costume choice. There's feeling unconvinced about another traveller, hesitant about diving into uncharted waters and anxious about breaking the rules in a foreign land, though, and then there's the ordeal that soon springs from a tragic accident, arrest, death sentence and wild get-out-of-jail-free situation. In Li Tolqa's criminal justice system, the well-to-do can pay to have doubles created to face their punishments. The two caveats: these doppelgängers will have the same memories and their originals must watch their grisly end.
"Where are we?" isn't the only line of enquiry splashing through Infinity Pool; "what would you do?", "what will people resort to for self-preservation?", "how cheap is someone else's life?", "why does death frighten us?" and "what happens when there's truly no consequences for anything?" rain down just as heavily. So does the obvious: in this scenario, how does anyone ever know if they're the OG version of themselves or the copy? Em is shaken and can't wait to leave, but the smirk that spreads slowly across James' face while he's witnessing his likeness' demise betrays his intrigue. The movie itself is curious, too — and it, like its audience, knows that humanity's worst impulses are about to pour out. Indeed, in kaleidoscopic and hypnotic sequences overflowing with sex, drugs and violence, as body parts intermingle and bodily fluids flow freely, and while unthinkable cruelty becomes a tourism experience for those who can afford it, the younger Cronenberg showers his film in a sometimes-psychedelic, often-gruesome onslaught of can't-look-away chaos.
In pictures both brilliant and brutal — and literally filled with pictures earning the same description — the uncompromising Cronenberg keeps bleakly cosying up to futility. When famous flesh is not just the pinnacle of a society but consumed ravenously and incessantly, as seen in Antiviral, how can existence be meaningful? When bodies are hijacked to do someone else's bidding, as Possessor explored, that same query is inescapable. And when the powerful and privileged treat living and dying as a game dictated by their wallets, what about humanity matters? Getting terrifying with the blood and guts of being alive is clearly in Cronenberg's genes, but his specific mutation also repeatedly ponders existing as a meat market. He isn't subtle about his off-screen parallels, but he doesn't need to be; his ideas and imagery have proven visceral, piercing and haunting not once, not twice, but three glorious times now, including in this dread- and tension-dripping feature that brings a twisted mix of The Prestige, The Forgiven, Dual, Triangle of Sadness, Battle Royal and The Purge to mind.
Skarsgård is no newcomer to on-screen mayhem, with 2022's The Northman instantly cementing itself as one of his best-ever performance and films. He's equally magnetic as an initially unwitting participant in Infinity Pool's feast of carnal and primal desires, and more than one iteration of James at that; surrendering with bewilderment to hedonistic madness suits him, as does playing awkward, unsure and tentative alongside that. Fresh from such stunning work in X and Pearl, and with that slasher trilogy's third effort MaXXXine on the way, Goth's casting is just as crucial. If Gabi wasn't as mysterious and seductive as she is ominous — so, if she wasn't an alluring but sinister femme fatale — the whole movie would threaten to wash away. And, if she couldn't flip from enticing to merciless so suddenly and seamlessly, Infinity Pool wouldn't be the entrancing nightmare about soulless sound, fury, sex, bodies, life and death signifying nothing that it so deeply and intoxicatingly is.
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