The whole time I was watching Antiviral, the debut film from Brandon Cronenberg-if the last name sounds familiar, it's because Brandon is the son of revered Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg-I was thoroughly enchanted with it. I kept having to remind myself that, yes, the movie does have some shortcomings, and they kept it from rating higher than it did. But the movie's immense style made me want to gloss those shortcomings over. This is definitely a case of form over function, and in that, early Brandon is on the same track as early David was-and by "early" with David Cronenberg I'm talking about his earliest features, 1969's Stereo and 1970's Crimes of the Future, rather than the "early" stuff everyone's seen (Shivers, Rabid, and The Brood, by the last of which Cronenberg had already, as far as I'm concerned, reached the heights of body-horror greatness he would plumb until 1999's eXistenZ). When it comes right down to it, you're going to want to say you knew him when.
Plot: Syd March (No Country for Old Men's Caleb Landry Jones) works for a near-future company that specializes in a new form of celebrity-worship; they harvest diseases from celebrities, culture them, and infect paying clients with the same strain of the same disease their heroes have. In any case, supermodel Hannah Geist (Dracula Untold's Sarah Gadon) is rumored to have a brand new disease that no one has ever seen before, and Syd's company is desperate to get their hands on some of it. Syd is on the case-not only because he's good at his job, but because, unknown to his company, he is obsessed with Hannah.
Brandon does things the same way Dad does-build the characters well enough so that no matter how weird the situations, things remain somewhat plausible. Where Brandon differs is that it was pretty rare to find a pre-Spider Cronenberg film that seemed in any way realistic. In the days of ubiquitous reality TV and websites devoted to celebrity gossip seeing millions of hits per day, Brandon's near-future vision seems all too realistic. While there's an obvious body-horror aspect to what goes on here, this is more a movie about atmosphere, tension, and paranoia than it is about gross-out special effects, and it benefits tremendously from this. An tiviral is a touch unformed and maybe could've used one more rewrite to tighten up the plot, but it's stylish, creepy, and excels at portions of the filmmaker's craft that many journeymen have never mastered; a very good debut from a promising filmmaker. Can't wait to see what he does next. *** 1/2
Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) is that tech, Syd. He's got a pretty sweet gig, selling the virii he harvests to pirates who then alternately inject people with the virus (for a nice price) and grow the equivalent of steaks - really! - with the pathogens for their customers' dining pleasure. How does he do this? Volume! No, actually, what the company does is inject the virus into a machine that essentially copy protects the virus, making the virus proprietary. His company, the Lucas Clinic, is contracted to take blood from dying celeb Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon), and Syd injects himself and quickly becomes disoriented, weak, and feverish. When Syd attempts to remove the copy protection by using his own machine, the console is destroyed.
It is a story that shines a bright, infected light on society's devotion to all things celebrity. How far would a superfan go to be a part of a famous person's life? Would they infect themselves with noncontagious herpes? Chew on a regrown kidney? You know something...I think they would, at least the more deranged and sociopathic fans. Such a connection is exponentially stronger than a simple autographed photo. You've not just been recognized by them; you are part of them.
The director is one Brandon Cronenberg, son of David, and the son has the same predilection for the macabre as the father. The obsession with celebrities, all too apparent in real life, is shown to be pretty normal in the film's fictional universe, and yet the horror of playing with the fire of fast-spreading pathogens undercuts this seeming normalcy with an almost Jones' Syd pretends to be just another hustler, but he's really as demented as his customers (and clients). Jones plays Syd perfectly as a shady, somewhat-sullen man of little distinction; also noteworthy are Joe Pingue as Arvid (employee of the celebrity meat market), Wendy Crewson as the head of a rival pathogen company, and Malcolm McDowell, playing yet another doctor, this time with skin grafts from his favorite celebrity.
Antiviral is a horror mystery, with buckets of blood and oodles of intrigue. It's a creepy allegory of man's lust for fame of any kind, viewed through a prism of late-1980s Canadian horror. It's a fine, engrossing film.
Caleb Landry Jones gave a performance of a lifetime! It was way beyond creepy, it was truly a frightening spectacle! I look forward to viewing future films featuring this brilliant young actor!