starring Alexander Skarsgård, Mia Goth, Cleopatra Coleman, Jalil Lespert
written and directed by Brandon Cronenberg
by Angelo Muredda Brandon Cronenberg delivers his own visceral riff on the resort satire trend with Infinity Pool, a high-concept thriller that shares obvious genetic material with its precursor, Possessor (2021), but feels more like the runty kid brother in terms of its ideas. With his third feature, Cronenberg hones his skillsets in grounded sci-fi storytelling and kaleidoscopic montage while continuing to make a meal of the charge that he's merely following in his father's footsteps as a new purveyor of brainy body horror, boldly playing once more with the motifs of inheritance and imitation where less confident nepotism babies might dodge the comparison outright. Yet in the absence of stronger material, these predilections don't ripen into rich artistic fruits so much as they rot, leaving Infinity Pool's success riding largely on the back of its occasionally startling images and self-effacing cast, who, like Cronenberg, are riffing on the roles we expect from them.
Alexander Skarsgård plays James, a mediocre one-time novelist vacationing at a resort on the fictional island of La Tolqa (in reality Croatia) with his partner and wealthy patron, Em (Cleopatra Coleman). There, he's befriended by apparent fan Gabi (Mia Goth), who invites him to party with her high-rolling entourage of fellow Westerners behaving badly, leaving the compound for the countryside despite the resort's explicit prescriptions against guests gallivanting off its prepared grounds. When a drunken James, after some late-night debauchery on the beach, strikes and kills a local pedestrian on his way back to the resort, he gets the full La Tolqa hospitality package of being arrested and held without trial before learning that the penalty for his misdeeds is death at the hands of his victim's first-born son. That is, unless he (or moneybags Em) can bail him out by paying to have him cloned in the titular liminal space, downloading his guilt and criminal liability onto the identical doppelgänger who now holds all of his memories. Those clones, he learns, are fashioned for the express purpose of serving as the diplomat and dilettante jet-set's sin-eaters--an underclass tortured and killed so their betters can live violent, rude, careless lives, trampling on the locals as well as the unlucky bearers of their own spitting images.
That's a fetching premise, but as science-fiction, Infinity Pool feels pretty scrawny--the stuff of a filler "Star Trek" episode about the crew breaking some obscure foreign custom on an otherwise idyllic shore leave and being asked to pay an obscene price for it. Like his father (a phrase he surely hates), Cronenberg sometimes has more ideas than he knows what to do with, though he exhibits little of the wry humanity and mordant wit that makes Cronenberg Senior's more philosophically adventurous and loquacious works (like his newest, Crimes of the Future) feel pleasantly overstuffed rather than undercooked. There's lots going on here thematically, from the relatively standard doppelgänger identity crisis to the mysterious island utopia-dystopia, and not much of it is developed with care. The foreigner-abroad motif would have benefitted from some creative retooling: better to have cast Skarsgård as a civilized Swede navigating the American criminal justice system than this tired, non-specific pastiche of communist hell.
Cronenberg is on especially shaky ground with the film's noncommittal eat-the-rich ethos, which seems inspired by Nick Carroway's observation in The Great Gatsby about how a certain kind of wealthy person smashes up everyone they meet before retreating into their "vast carelessness." The satire here lacks the observational acumen of any number of recent works that cover the same ground--likely due, at least initially, to tax incentives and COVID safety measures that make exotic island shoots appealing--only with more rounded characters. Partly by design and partly by accident, only Gabi is given any development. Fellow bunga bunga party revellers played by Jalil Lespert, Amanda Brugel, and John Ralston pop up with some frequency amidst sequences of orgiastic violence and crimes against social mores but have virtually no distinguishing features, certainly no more than you'd get from the masked misanthropes in the Purge movies. Cast your mind back to them at the end and at best you might remember that one of them is named Bob.
Once he's gotten past the introductory section, which is about as visually appealing as the downbeat browns and greys of Brokedown Palace despite the overzealous canted angles and unnerving God's-eye-view shots from security cameras, Cronenberg conjures some unusual sights to see. The hallucinogenic sequences of James's cloning process and psychotropics-aided sexual dalliance with Gabi are worth the price of admission, respecting the Cronenberg name by giving us one of the things we think we want out of the family business: eroticized, uncanny images of body parts splicing with and penetrating other body parts. There's a genuine gnarliness to these scenes that makes the aesthetic cribbing from filmmakers such as Nicolas Winding Refn and Ken Russell more or less forgivable.
It must also be said that Goth and Skarsgård are giving their all, finding new angles in familiar character types. Goth is as funny and enigmatic as she's ever been, playing another actress prone to histrionics but in a distinctly more malevolent register than her iconic Pearl. Skarsgård seems to be having fun with his handsome blandness as a cipher for whom being unremarkable is the point: Maybe he is a clone, and maybe he's not, but his malleability and essential nothingness make him immediately legible as a perfect mark for his new sinister friends. While Cronenberg invests an awful lot in the decent plot twist that reveals what these characters are actually about, treating the first 90 minutes or so as a digressive preamble to the punchline that really gets him off, it's to Goth and Skarsgård's credit in establishing enough mystery and curiosity beforehand that the last-act payoff feels remotely worth waiting for amidst the sometimes generic sci-fi foreplay.