The Filthy Rich and the Walking Dead
One of the buzz phrases of our current epoch is 'nepo baby', which everyone seems to be using now they have realised that people with successful parents have a much better chance of being successful themselves. There seems to be a degree of resentment of this, but here in the UK I don't really feel we have any grounds for grumbling given that the majority of people are fine with our head of state basically getting his job because of who his mum was.
Elsewhere in the world – particularly the fizzing realm of Canadian-Croatian-Hungarian movie co-production – things may be different, but this hasn't stopped Brandon Cronenberg from making his third film. 'Brandon who?' you may be wondering – yes, he is the son of David Cronenberg, but it's probably worth pointing out he was born after Cronenberg Senior made The Brood and so those homicidal infant monsters were not based on him. I expect.
When you are the son of one of the world's most celebrated horror movie directors it probably influences any movie career you may have – how could it not? It's hard to imagine the Cronenberg name on a rom-com or a feelgood film. You probably wouldn't watch Brandon Cronenberg's new film Infinity Pool without knowing the director's name and immediately cry 'Hey, it's just like a David Cronenberg film!' – but on the other hand, it's not totally different, either. It's certainly a film which arrives from the outermost reaches of commercial cinema, well beyond the boundaries of conventional good taste.)
Alexander Skarsgard plays James Foster, a marginally successful author enjoying – sort of – a holiday in the tourist enclave of Li Tolqa (a presumably Balkan country – it looks like it's just down the coast from Beszel and/or Ul Qoma) with his much wealthier wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman). The holiday is going only marginally well until Foster meets a couple of fans – architect Alban (Jalil Lespert) and his much younger British wife Gabi (Mia Goth). Soon they are hanging out together as couples who meet on holiday do, and Gabi makes it rather clear that she has a more than friendly interest in Foster (he is relieving himself after a beach barbecue when she appears and, ahem, gives him a hand. This sequence is absolutely on the limit of what you can get away with showing in a respectable movie, in case you were wondering).
Things take a darker turn as, driving home from the barbecue, Foster hits and kills a local. Gabi declares that 'this is not a civilised country' and insists they leave the scene of the crime without reporting it (echoes here of The Forgiven from last year). But the Li Tolqan police know their business and soon Foster and his wife find themselves under arrest. Despite the notoriously brutal local justice system, the detective in charge (Thomas Kretschmann) suggests it is unlikely Foster will be executed: foreigners have the option of paying to use the local custom where convicted criminals can have themselves cloned, the clone then being killed in their presence by the victim's family. The police station has its own convenient ATM, seemingly just for this purpose.
Naturally Foster makes use of this option, but while Em is horrified by the ritual of the execution (another very graphic scene), Foster's own response is rather ambivalent. He discovers that Gabi and Alban are members of a rather exclusive club of foreign visitors who have been through the Li Tolqan justice system and developed a taste for watching themselves put to death – not least because this effectively comes hand-in-hand with complete immunity to all the local laws. The possibilities are enticing, assuming Foster can get his head around the moral degeneracy involved...
The Cronenberg name means everyone is treating this as a horror film – and, to be fair, this is one of the most wildly graphic films I have ever seen – but there is a rich vein of disquieting Ballardian satire going on here as well. It's a film about lots of different things, but one of the main ones is what the jaded hyper-wealthy (and sometimes not so hyper-wealthy) get up to in poorer countries. This isn't quite a film about the phenomenon of poverty tourism, but the disconnect between different economic castes is certainly in the mix.
To the extent that it is a horror film, Infinity Pool is one that sets out to disturb and repel rather than simply frighten. There's not much in the way of catharsis here, just a profound sense of angst and fundamental wrongness as Foster is swallowed up by a world where morality simply doesn't exist and no act is too transgressive. There is extreme sexual content to go with the violence, including an eye-poppingly hallucinogenic orgy sequence that left me in no doubt as to why this film had to be cut in order to be released at all in American cinemas. Parts of the film may look innocuous, but it is really a voyage to the heart of darkness (and various other internal organs too).
Alexander Skarsgard has history making fairly extreme films, of course, and he gives another impressive performance in this one. Co-leading the film is Mia Goth as his guide-temptress-tormentor – Goth is acquiring a reputation as someone to watch in the horror genre, and she commands the screen here, even if she never quite manages to shake the impression she's playing some sort of perverse wish-fulfilment figure. It's a tremendous turn and what usually gets called a very striking performance ('striking' being film-critic code for when an actress takes all her clothes off at least once in a film).
The film's mixture of profound disquiet, savage satire and deadpan black comedy ('Think of it as a souvenir,' suggests Kretschmann as Skarsgard is handed the ashes of his first clone) is certainly reminiscent of the elder Cronenberg's most distinctive work, but it's not quite as simple as that – the cerebral chilliness and sense of detachment are absent, replaced by something more visceral. It feels like the younger Cronenberg wants to plunge in, get some skin in the game, where his father would remain an aloof chronicler. It's a different approach but one which, in this case at least, gets results. Unsettling and challenging results, but ones which are difficult to forget – this is a movie which does not compromise. Whatever else you think of it, this is impressive.