Directed by: Brandon Cronenberg.
Written by: Brandon Cronenberg.
Starring: Caleb Landry Jones (Syd March), Sarah Gadon (Hannah Geist), Malcolm McDowell (Dr. Abendroth), Douglas Smith (Edward Porris), Joe Pingue (Arvid), Nicholas Campbell (Dorian), Salvatore Antonio (Topp), Elitsa Bako (Vera), Milton Barnes (Salesman), Katie Bergin (Candyce).
Having the last name Cronenberg is probably both a blessing and curse for Brandon Cronenberg. Being the son of David Cronenberg, the best director to ever come out of Canada, means that in Canada’s small film industry, doors will more readily open for you than they would for someone else. Yet, the name also carries with it baggage – and more importantly expectations. I don’t think that no matter how made Antiviral that it would a “good” film, but I do know that myself (and others) might not so readily compare it to the work of David Cronenberg had it not been made by his son. Yes, the plot of the movie sounds like something David would have made when he was younger, but the connection would have been more tenuous if someone else had made the film. The result is a movie where you admire the intention and effort much more than the execution. I want to see what Brandon Cronenberg does next, even if I have to ultimately conclude that Antiviral doesn’t achieve what it sets out. It’s a good try though.
The film takes place in the not too distant future, where our culture’s celebrity fixation has grown to an even more unhealthy level than it currently is. In this society, there are companies who can infect you with the same virus your favorite celebrity has – you can suffer from the same cold, the same flu, even the same herpes as the object of your obsession if you want to. In addition, there are places where you can go and buy cloned cell steaks – so you can essentially eat the muscle tissue of a celebrity if you want to. And all of this has come to be perceived as normal.
Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) works as a salesman selling these viruses to the people who come into his sterile, bright, all white office. He is a quiet, awkward little man, not as easy with chitchat as the other people who work for this large, faceless corporation. But it’s possible it’s because he almost always finds himself sick. Knowing there is a black market for these viruses; Syd injects himself with the latest viruses, goes home, draws his own blood and on a stolen machine, recreates the virus. He cannot get the virus out any other way – and this pays well. All he has to do is be sick most of the time.
One of the company’s biggest “sellers” is Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon). Whatever she is supposedly famous for is never mentioned – maybe an actress, a singer or someone famous for simply being famous. She has an “exclusive” contract with his company, selling her viruses just to them. Syd is sent to collect the latest of these from her, as she lies sick in her hotel room. He draws her blood, but before getting back to the office, he injects some it into himself – to save some time, and to ensure that he is the one who makes the money on the black market off this virus. The next day on the news he hears disturbing news – Hannah Geist is dead of some strange virus. And now, of course, he has it too, and has to find a way to cure himself – or die.
Depending on your tolerance for this type of story, the above plot description probably either sounds really interesting, or really stupid. To me, I found it interesting – at least reading the outline in the TIFF Program. The film’s obsession certainly falls in line with David Cronenberg’s obsession with body horror movies – where the threat to the protagonist does not come from some exterior threat, but something growing inside them (this is true of many of Cronenberg’s earlier movies from Shivers to Rabid to The Brood to Scanners to The Dead Zone to The Fly, and continues, in more subtle ways, throughout much of his work). I think our celebrity obsessed culture is ripe for mockery, and this type of film should be a fascinating exploration of the subject. Unfortunately, I don’t think Brandon Cronenberg ever truly thought this all out – he came up with an interesting idea, and then does very little with it. Based on his own short film, Broken Tulips, Antiviral feels like a short film stretched beyond all reason into a feature. So we get many repetitive scenes and scene after scene of exposition, since the plot is so needlessly complex the movie has to stop itself every few minutes to explain what the hell is happening. It certainly doesn’t help that in the lead role Caleb Landry Jones is pretty much a zombie – sleep walking through his role, seemingly trying to go for quiet intensity that instead comes across as silly. And the rest of the cast are given such thin roles that there is nothing that can be done with them – the best being Sarah Gadon, who at least is supposed to be a cipher in the film.
Still, Antiviral shows tremendous promise from Cronenberg – much more as a director than as a writer. The movie is full of striking images, that grow more and more disturbing as the movie goes along, culminating in a one of the more disturbing and sickening images of any film this year. I want to see what Brandon Cronenberg does next – where he goes from here. But I also think that he would be better served by taking on a movie that doesn’t bare quite so much resemblance to the movies that his father has already mastered.