written and directed by Brandon Cronenberg; starring Caleb Landry Jones, Sarah Gadon, Joe Pingue, Douglas Smith, Malcom McDowell
|Syd (Caleb Landry Jones) and the allure of the viral|
Syd Marsh (Caleb Landry Jones) is bundled into an imposing black car, and quickly joined in the backseat by one of the men who have just escorted him from a diner. “Don’t look so worried. You’re a commodity,” the man assures him, nonplussed as to the horror of that statement. In the world of Antiviral, though, being a commodity is the highest honour. Celebrities – who, as far as we can tell, are all of the variety whose career is exactly and only that celebrity – are so beloved by the public that such places exist where people pay to be injected with infections and diseases taken from celebrities’ bodies. Syd works for one of these, the Lucas Clinic, selling the needles with an enrapturing, hollow rhetoric. He’s not impervious to the lure of viral glamour and performs rushed operations on himself.
Comparisons to the oeuvre of director Brandon Cronenberg’s father are inevitable; certainly, the cool obsession with the corporeal is reminiscent of almost David’s entire filmography, but Antiviral feels more clinical, dominated by a conflict between the blinding brightness of this near future and the blood that is vomited onto it. Brandon’s use of space is more reminiscent of Julia Leigh’s recent Sleeping Beauty, or Todd Haynes’ Safe – the almost theatrical framing of spaces, trapping the protagonist within a cold, disconnected milieu. With his endless spread of freckles, Jones is not unlike Safe’s lead Julianne Moore, and, as an infection grips him and he’s encased within a spacious white box of a room, the visual parallels to Haynes’ masterpiece are surely not unintentional.
But Syd is not a passive patient fading away like Safe’s Carol White; not long into his stay in that box of a room, he fights back in a particularly vicious way, of the sort Antiviral is short but punchy with. If there’s a problem here – beyond the essential vapidity of the commentary on celebrity culture, ultimately a platform for demonstrating Cronenberg’s visualisation of a particular world and his display of clinical horrors – it’s that the film is overstretched and doesn’t fill that extended reach with enough visceral action. I’m not asking for gratuity, but from an opening stretch where the corporeal surface is captured with eerie brightness – Syd’s eye opening, full screen, like a vast crevice – the film loses itself somewhat in a quagmire of exposition. When it reignites towards the end, the internal becomes external, as if it’s been percolating all that time inside Syd’s body.
Jones has shades of Michael Pitt about him – a thinner, more angular face, but the same hushed, restrained tone of voice. Coming from Pitt, it gave the impression he was scared of his own brain, but Syd is a more dynamic, jaggedly imposing figure, and Jones uses his voice as an instrument to hold Syd hidden on the sidelines. As the disease weighs him down, Jones deepens the intense focus on the body by hunching so severely he comes to resemble Gollum. Jones’ full-bodied commitment to the narrative is what really makes Antiviral click, surpassing the unbelievable celebrity conceit to become an enactment of deteriorating horror, with similar aplomb to Cronenberg Sr. and his contemporaries.