Written and Directed by Brandon Cronenberg | 117 min | ▲▲▲△△
I’m not the first critic to recognize the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree with the younger Cronenberg, son of David. Consider his first two features — Antiviral and the remarkable Possessor. The son’s thematic concerns are similar to the father, the interest in discomfiting body horror, specifically. Here Brandon is stretching into new areas that feel like more of a throwback to freak-out pictures of the past, the heavily allegorical nightmare visions of someone like Ken Russell or David Lynch. If there’s a problem it’s one common to a lot of movies that dip into hallucination — its message isn’t entirely coherent.
We land on a beach-front resort in the fictional country of LaTolqa (Croatia and Hungary were filming locations), where fetching couple James and Em (Alexander Skarsgaard and Cleopatra Coleman) are vacationing. She’s the money, he’s a novelist whose first and only book came and went years ago. They meet Gabi (Mia Goth), who’s a fan of James’ work. She invites James and Em for a day out with her and her husband, Alban (Jalil Lespert), a trip to a nearby beach in a rented 1970s convertible land yacht. We’ve also learned tourists aren’t allowed to leave the resort compound for their own safety — LaTolqa is a violent society with a high crime rate. Wouldn’t you know it, after a day of drinking James drives back to the resort, hitting and killing a man on the road. Though they try to hide the evidence of this, they’re arrested and face LaTolqa’s draconian justice.
At this point, you’d be forgiven for thinking this is a horror-fuelled twist on recent dramas and comedies taking the mickey out of the leisurely class — everything from the series White Lotus to Triangle of Sadness, or The Forgiven. All that makes the set-up here different is the telling atonal notes in the score and the camera turning upside down in the opening scenes — be prepared for the creeps, it’s letting us know.
From the here, though, Infinity Pool takes a leap. The government of LaTolqa’s efforts to attract tourists clashes with its brutal, punitive laws, so when a foreigner commits a crime they have an option to pay to be cloned (they call it duplication) where the duplicate will retain all the memories of the original person. Then the law-breaker must witness the duplicate receive punishment — usually they’re executed by someone close to the victim of the crime, in this case the 13-year-old son of the man who James ran down.
The movie isn’t interested in providing anything like a semi-plausible explanation for this technology — no clues that this is set in the future or an alternative present — we just have to take it on faith that duplication exists and it makes anyone who is wealthy enough free from prosecution in this country. Cue a real taste of The Purge.
Anyone with a passing experience of science fiction will know that when an exact duplicate of a person comes into the story what we’re always dealing with is a question of who is the genuine article. Has the “prime” James been executed? The funny thing is there’s no ambiguity in this movie around that going forward — it’s practically presumed to be the case, especially when James finds Gabi and Alban are part of a tight group of friends, regular visitors to LaTolqa, who’ve all been through this before and delight in the possibility that they’re no longer their original versions.
From here the movie shirks off a shell of interest in privilege and moves into a focus on pleasure-seeking, morality, identity, and self-destruction, with a lot of sex, drugs, and bloody violence to help the spicy brew go down.
But to what end? One of the problems here is that James is pretty much a cypher. He has little to no personality. What was his book about? What does he get out of his relationship with his wife aside from her financial support? Why does he lie to her so easily? There’s no key relationship here between him and anyone else, which makes it hard to care much for his well-being, which in turn reduces the movie’s stakes.
That said, this is a picture with a knowing sense of humour about itself and its characters. A delightful smash cut puts the whole gang of troublemakers James has joined back into the duplicate factory, which must’ve been done for a chuckle. By the time we arrive in the third act, you’re either on this ride or you’re not, and there’s no saying where it’s going to end up.
Infinity Pool offers one sequence more depraved and surprising after another. Whatever is actually on its mind — and there are plenty of different possibilities — you’re unlikely to be bored.