by Bill Chambers Featuring more close-ups of needles piercing flesh than a booster-shot training video, Antiviral, the debut feature by Cronenberg offspring Brandon, takes place in a world evolutions ahead of TMZ, where fans pay to have themselves infected with viruses extracted from their celebrity crushes. ("Biological communion," the film calls this process--a phrase that links father and son filmmakers as efficiently as a paternity test.) The slightly repulsive Caleb Landry Jones is Syd March, a rogue technician for The Lucas Clinic who breaks protocol by contaminating himself with the disease that is rapidly, unexpectedly killing superstar Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon), making him a target of Hannah's family--who figure he'll be useful in their search for a cure--and fans, who want to watch him expire as a proxy for their beloved Hannah. Yes, it's pretty silly.
Jones reminds of a young--or rather the young--Brad Dourif, but he might be too young, and therein lies one of the central problems with Antiviral, which feels like a student film in that it's full of underage talent playing beyond their years. Those exceptions where Cronenberg's seemingly called in some big favours--Sheila McCarthy, Nicholas Campbell, Malcolm McDowell--only enhance that vibe, as student films tend to operate on the same kind of tokenism in pursuit of legitimacy. Rising star Gadon is a fascinating presence, though, through no fault of the film's: The fact that she was in Papa David's Cosmopolis earlier this summer just adds this note of incestuousness her performance never quite shakes. And Cronenberg definitely has fun defiling her snow-white purity, or really any pale surface--it's like he watched THX 1138 and yearned to smear its antiseptic canvas with blood and shit. Towards the end of Antiviral, the screen, more often than not, looks like a Jackson Pollock painting.
The fact that the Lucas Clinic's clientele is predominantly male is maybe insightful, but so much of the movie's satire--or social commentary, if you prefer--lands like sledgehammer blows to the head (such as a butcher shop that sells celebrity(-tainted) meat). Still, I liked every tabloid scandal being referred to by press and public alike as an "ordeal," as in "Scarlett Johansson's cell-phone ordeal," which rings with just the right amount of ersatz sympathy. Even that witty touch is torpedoed, however, by Cronenberg's scatological impulses, and eventually we get so-and-so's "anus ordeal." While Antiviral is more polished than David Cronenberg's own early work, it's also more jejune, and a scene where Syd is briefly transformed into a meat puppet with a Darth Vader mouthpiece fused to his face--complete with blood seeping through the little grate, natch--labours too hard and too transparently to provide the picture with that iconic image à la Marilyn Chambers's vaginal armpits or Louis Del Grande's exploding head that could buy Junior the benefit of the doubt while he perfects his game. I gather from interviews that Cronenberg bristles at comparisons to his dad, but if that's the case, he shouldn't have riffed so heavily on Cronenbergian tropes like body modification, plague, and viral media. Homage becomes a crucible when you're kin.