ANTIVIRAL. Starring Caleb Landry Jones, Sarah Gadon, Malcolm McDowell, Sheila McCarthy, Wendy Crewson. Directed by Brandon Cronenberg. 108 minites. Rated MA 15+ (Strong themes).
Weird. And that is a compliment.
This is a very striking film, the atmosphere of science-fiction, with touches of horror, in a world of the future not unlike the present.
This soon becomes apparent as we stare at huge billhoard advertising a clinic with a glamorous face endorsing the expertise of the clinic. But, below right, is a scrawny-looking man with a thermometer in his mouth. This framing of advertisement and a man is done with the framing-style of a stills photographer – and this continues through the film enhancing the themes with a strange formality and beauty. Many of the sets, waiting rooms, laboratories are filmed in this way. As are the frequent sinister sets of dingy apartments, piracy centres for stealing patents as well as abbatoir-like labs for cultivating the tissues for viruses.
That’s the tone. But, almost immediately we learn that the clinic is in the business of making money from the macabre desires of fans of celebrities. They so want to be one with their idols that, even when the celebrity is ill or dying (and, by the end, when they are dead), that the fans want to be injected with the virus of their illness.
Macabre is the appropriate word for this kind of ugly hero-worship, but we might be thinking that the role of plastic surgery, botox, breast implants and other procedures we are familiar with are really in the same vein.
The gaunt young man of the opening is Syd March, an employee and adviser at the clinic. However, a loner, he smuggles viruses out of the clinic, despite strict security checks, and develops them at home to sell to piracy bidders and rival companies. Needless to say, this will involve him in some violence (towards him) and his being subject to experimentation.
Caleb Landry Jones gives a seemingly effortless performance that requires him to range from normal, or what he thinks is normal, to being ill, crippled, hobbling with a stick. He is pallid, very freckled, with sometimes stringy hair and a ponytail. As the film progresses, as he hobbles with his stick, he resembles characters like Igor in the Dracula stories.
The mention of Dracula reminds us that, while the film is not horror in the gory sense, its implications are horrifying. The laboratories are the 21st century equivalent of Frankenstein’s with viral blood making monsters instead of electricity. The blood suggests vampires, more than suggested by the final image of the film.
Of course, this is not a film one is going to recommend indiscriminately. Its implications are frightening. There are some repulsive moments illustrating the themes. But, one of the roles of a film-maker is to offer frightening allegories. Writer-director, Brandon Cronenburg is only in his mid-20s. This is his first film. It has a stylish weirdness that is impressive. In fact, he is the son of David Cronenberg who, in the 1970s, was making similar (but even more macabre) films like Shivers , Rabid, The Brood and, in the 1980s, The Fly. Judging from this effort, Brandenberg might well emulate his father in his most significant career.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Released April 25 2013.