With this being his first feature film (beyond his two written/directed short films), like his father before him Brandon Cronenberg is no stranger to an odd style of filmmaking. That is to say with Antiviral, despite what Brandon says in the Q&A about not wanting to make a film like his father, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Right off the bat, family name not withstanding, Antiviral will be a tough sell for most audiences. Yet, underlying all the weird and macabre elements and a brutally focused performance from Caleb Landry Jones is something brilliant. Like Videodrome, this Cronenberg takes a common societal theme and analyzes it under such scrutiny that the result is a wild exaggeration of celebrity and our insatiable pursuit of it. It’s a horrifically taut satire that in some way can be seen as prophetic.
Antiviral‘s protagonist (though that’s not really what he is) is Syd March, a sales rep for The Lucas Clinic. In a world where people will do anything to be close to a star/celebrity the clinic specializes in selling viruses that at one time infected the personality in question. In a way it’s like getting close to stardom but also becoming the star. Kind of weird but it goes a lot deeper and darker than that. For every step down this reverse rabbit hole the more, oddly, fascinating it becomes. Really it’s about how many layers, ever deeper, Cronenberg can add to this warped world he’s created. Genre bending, it becomes an almost spy film where Syd, working for and against his company has been pulled into a bigger world than he expected.
Caleb Landry Jones is fascinating and fully embraces this unsettling and intense story. With a conviction that’s beyond obsession Syd’s not just pushing viruses at the clinic but filtering them, through his own body and selling them as hybrids that have no ties to the agency. Essentially he’s pirating copyrighted material. Jones throws himself into the weird and with help from some dreamlike cinematography and an overwhelming score from E.C Jones the film is a challenging film for the audience (whether here at Fantastic Fest or else where). But funny thing about the world Cronenberg has created is that with all the strange terms and lifestyles, all the characters are completely at ease with the events. Usually a film will have an everyman for the audience to relate to, one who reacts just as the audience might as a way of breaking the fourth wall…but not here. Characters are so into their world and its icy corporate slickness.
There’s lots of high concept technology and the world, as far as being an exaggeration, seems oddly plausible. Lots of thought/attention to detail show itself in every aspect of the production and set design. From fake news stories to the machine that lets Syd break the copyright encryption on the virus (yes, that’s a pretty cool concept that’s worth seeing the film just hear how fantastic and intricate it it). It’s all set in a near-future the that seems tangible. Without being Blade Runner stylish, it is kind of creepy since Cronenberg makes it easy to image something like this actually becoming a reality…but taken with a huge grain of salt.
In the film Sarah Gadon plays Hanna Geist, the sought after super-starlet that everyone obsesses over. The levels of closeness people are allowed to get to her via things like these diseases, celebrity skin graphs and, this is totally in the film, “cell steaks”. That’s right, steaks cultivated from the cells of Hanna Geist. Weird huh? But in a Cronenberg film, or rightly son of Cronenberg, it’s about as normal as you’d expect. Add to it the fantastic acting from all parties including Malcolm McDowell (whether or not any actor really understood the lines they were reading) were convincing and fully fleshed out this nightmare vision of the future. This is a fantastic debut feature film from the young filmmaker, and one can only wonder what worlds he’ll show us in the future. Whether you want to venture into them depends on the discretion (and of the viewer.