Review: Antiviral (2012)

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Cast: Caleb Landry Jones, Sarah Gadon, Malcolm McDowell
Director: Brandon Cronenberg
Country: Canada | USA
Genre: Horror | Sci-Fi | Thriller
Official Trailer: Here


Editor’s Note: Antiviral opens in limited release Friday April 12th.

It can’t be easy living in the shadow of David Cronenberg. It’s a tall shadow, and a dark one; from it hang distorted limbs and grotesque growths, its blackness as representative of psychosexual concepts as the brooding depth of the human soul. It’s a shadow cast by a career made of macabre masterpieces, the very mention of that surname summoning to mind the multitude of iconic images therefrom bequeathed upon cinema. Antiviral, the feature debut of David’s son Brandon, is not, however, the work of one man living in another’s shadow: the younger Cronenberg may draw on his father’s legacy in his own first film, but the end result is far more than simply a retreading of familial themes.

…there’s no great insight or innovation in labelling the cult of celebrity as one inherently unhealthy. It’s the genius of Cronenberg’s script to take this sick obsessiveness to hauntingly literal levels

In a world where even the slightest claim to fame is grounds for a garishly exploitative reality television deal, there’s no great insight or innovation in labelling the cult of celebrity as one inherently unhealthy. It’s the genius of Cronenberg’s script to take this sick obsessiveness to hauntingly literal levels; Antiviral explores the operation of the Lucas Clinic—an institution which infects its clients with diseases harvested from the celebrities of their choice—through employee Syd, . Teeming with intimate images of needles, synthetic flesh and muscle, and the horrid after-effects of these infections, it’s a film unmistakably born of the body horror genre of which its director is clearly a fan; Cronenberg is assured in his ability to elicit shudders and winces, confident enough in his approach to be guaranteed of creeping out even the more hardened horror fans.

So much of Antiviral’s disquieting sickliness can be attributed to the ghostly pallor of its leading man. Whether by the ingenuities of the makeup department or the frightening whiteness of Caleb Landry Jones’ face, Syd has the frightening look of a man perpetually inches from death, even ever before the narrative has its way with him. He undergoes a distinct and disturbing transformation in the course of the film, shedding litres of sweat and seeming constantly in the throes of serpentine contortions. Landry Jones’ is a phenomenal performance: laconic to the last, it falls to his physicality to convey the concomitant mental development of this character, a task more than adequately served in the drooping of his stature, the dimming of his eyes, the displacement of his hair.

His is an aesthetic of unmistakeable construction, the meticulousness of his frames—many laboriously given eerie, ethereal symmetry—paramount to the stylistic reflection of the narrative’s sheer creepiness.

Integral as the central performance is to the film’s effect, it would not function half as well without the support of Cronenberg’s direction. His is an aesthetic of unmistakeable construction, the meticulousness of his frames—many laboriously given eerie, ethereal symmetry—paramount to the stylistic reflection of the narrative’s sheer creepiness. Overwhelming in its whiteness and sterility, the Lucas Clinic bears some noteworthy resemblance to the institutions which played home to the elder Cronenberg’s own debut films: Stereo and Crimes of the Future. Brandon’s, though, is a more refined and rehearsed visual sensibility, no doubt indebted to the considerable technical advancements of the interim four decades. His camera remains primarily staunch and still, its detached gaze a committed reinforcement of the film’s distinctly aloof, objective overview of events.

Antiviral is less a criticism of celebrity culture than it is a haunting evaluation: why do so many obsess over so few? Why must we share every intimate detail of these celebrities’ lives? And how, in a world so vibrantly alive with the diseases of fandom, can we manage to remain uninfected? The film has no answers to offer for these questions—how could it?—but its austere interpretation thereof offers a horrific portrait of modern society: horrific not for its excesses, but for its resounding truths, never distorted in the process of amplification. Most interestingly of all, it’s a film that manages ironically—perversely, even—to prove its points through our viewing experience: after all, a film of this calibre will ensure our eyes remain closely fixated on Brandon Cronenberg’s every move.

[notification type=”star”]80/100 ~ GREAT. Antiviral has no answers to offer for its questions, but its austere interpretation thereof offers a horrific portrait of modern society: horrific not for its excesses, but for its resounding truths, never distorted in the process of amplification.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.