If a young artist has a famous parent, it’s very easy to lazily dump that fact into a discussion of their work, regardless of relevance; see, for example, the number of reviews of Moon and Source Code that pointlessly name-drop Duncan Jones’ father, David Bowie. That said, with Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral it’s impossible not to mention his father because the only way I can describe the film is as distinctly Cronenbergian.
To wit; Canadian setting, body horror, the quasi-sexual melding of the organic with the inorganic, sinister corporations and dubious authority figures; Antiviral is so heavily evocative of Cronenberg Sr.’s early work — particularly The Brood and Videodrome — it feels at times as if the film is the product of the father returning to his roots, rather than the son paying tribute to them.
This is all probably intentional; Cronenberg Jr. even casts Sarah Gadon, formerly of Cronenberg Sr.’s A Dangerous Method and Cosmopolis, so I won’t criticise Antiviral for being overly Cronenbergian. In fact, the film is such an accomplished, affectionate homage that, if anything, it warmed me to it more.
Antiviral is marvellous; a tightly-directed, gripping thriller with some nasty body horror and a bleakly satirical outlook, set in a future where people visit clinics to have themselves infected with viruses incubated by celebrities, and eat meat products cultured from celebrity cells, in order to feel closer and connected to those they adore.
Caleb Landry Jones is virus-salesman Syd March, playing him grotesquely, all breathy wetness and insincerity under a crisp, dry suit, pimping celebrity sickness in the same way someone might sell a new car or designer dress, emphasising the intimacy a shared sickness brings and leaning in close to show a customer that receiving a herpes virus on the left side of the mouth would make it seem as if the actress delivered the illness personally, with a kiss. He injects his customers roughly, still dressed in his suit, no thought given to hygiene or after-sale care.
March supplements his income by bootlegging viruses smuggled out of the building, sickening himself in order to bypass security. As the film progresses and March grows more desperate to compete with other bootleggers, he takes greater risks, becomes sicker, sweatier and more bedraggled, with deep, explosive coughs bloodily staining the clinical white surfaces he surrounds himself with. He is repellant as a protagonist, but those around him — butchers, bootleggers, and the general public feverishly consuming the celebrity, vampires in all but name — are worse.
Antiviral is a bleak, hopeless film. Society’s obsession with celebrity is taken to its logical, Swiftian conclusion and there’s no solution or judgement presented, with March only finding a way out of his self-inflicted death-spiral by finding an even more reprehensible way to continue. This is the nihilism of Cosmopolis combined with the ’80s retro-futurism of Panos Cosmatos’s Beyond the Black Rainbow by way of the blood fetishism of Chan-wook Park’s Thirst. It’s a nasty piece of work, recommended.