In 2012, a science-fiction film titled Antiviral hit both the Cannes Film Festival and the Toronto Film Festival, and what everybody talked about was that this film is from David Cronenberg’s son – Brandon Cronenberg. People started to look for similarities between Antiviral and David Cronenberg’s films and trademarks, and they found plenty of those. One of the points of this review is that Antiviral is an impressive film debut from Brandon Cronenberg, irrespective of his link to his famous father. That film and that director should be recognised in their own right. Antiviral is not a perfect film, but it has many interesting ideas and a good execution. It also has a feel different from David Cronenberg’s filmography. In Antiviral, Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)) is an employee of Lucas Clinic, a place where the dream of obsessed fans to be closer to their celebrities may be realised by injecting them with a live virus from one of the sick big celebrities. This way, customers will experience a one-of-a-kind union with their idols. One such celebrity which has a link to the clinic is beautiful Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon (Indignation (2016)). When Hannah falls ill after a trip to China, Syd flouts company regulations and becomes a host to her virus, not even realising that Hannah is on the brink of death.
Some may say that the premise in this film is completely unrealistic and ludicrous, but Cronenberg simply took today’s obsession with celebrities to a whole new level, and the result is rather thought-provoking. At Lucas Clinic, people are prepared to pay hefty sums of money to be injected with a virus taken from their idols, and, as clinic employees say – some form of that will live with them – inside their bodies – forever, even when they are well again. This way “to taste” their celebrities’ perfection and become intimate with them is unparalleled because not even partners to these celebrities get to reach that level of communion. The irony is, of course, that when celebrities are ill they are no longer “perfect”, and Cronenberg plays with that illusion of perfection and the absurdity of the situation. Quite logically, a tulip becomes Lucas Clinic’s symbol since wondrous colours of tulips are notoriously caused by a virus, with the clinic making its point that something as beautiful and perfect as that can be achieved through contacting a contagious disease. Cronenberg’s clear, “sterile” presentation of the clinic is intriguing, and the unflinching scenes of needles penetrating the skin of clients may just be rightly too uncomfortable to watch. The black-and-white-dominated cinematography provides then a nice contrast to the colour red when blood is introduced to the frame.
Caleb Landry Jones impresses as Syd, a detached “professional” merely doing his job when he calmly injects fans with diseases. The opening shop of him standing outside, near the Lucas Clinic advertisement banner, measuring his temperature, just about sums up the movie – this story is about one person who takes drastic risks with his health to possibly operate successfully outside the confines of the clinic. In the movie, we are not even sure of that intention, and because Syd’s true intentions in the story are so mysterious, this makes the film even more interesting. Jones plays his part just well enough for us to wonder whether there is more to his personality, and whether he may be just as obsessed with Hannah as any other client walking through the clinic doors.
Half-way through, it looks like the film hits the wall in terms of ideas, and loses its convincing force. The second half of the film does not feel as though it knows what it shows, and there is some chaotic and incoherent play with ideas and events. However, Cronenberg still manages to keep things interesting and there are some surprises to be found in the film’s second half. Understandably, Cronenberg throws into his movie some body-horror (see Dead Ringers (1988)), more blood (see Raw (2016)), and even Lynchian ideas, such as distinctive red drapes. He also tries to wrap his film up in some Kafkaesque indeterminacy and slow-burning enigma a la Upstream Colour (2013). The result is that the gory scenes look particularly impressive in the otherwise austere-looking presentation.
Antiviral proves that Brandon Cronenberg is a talented director and it is a pity that we have not seen him as a film director since 2012. The good news is that there is his film Possessor (2019) coming up, starring Sean Bean and Jennifer Jason Leigh, which may be something to keep an eye on. This is because Antiviral, with all its core incoherence, is still a movie where many elements worked well. The film’s minimalistic presentation, Jones’s impressive turn as “cool” Syd, and uncomfortable, dreamy scenes are all memorable. At the core of Antiviral is that deliciously-absurd and highly-imaginative idea of the celebrity-obsessed culture stretched to the limits, and the slightly unfocused but committed direction is what brought this idea so compellingly to the screen. 7/10