Brandon Cronenberg does indeed prove to be a chip off the old block. His superb directorial debut Antiviral (2012), despite a limited budget, is rife with fascinating ideas and striking visuals that reflect the alternate world in which chief protagonist Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) finds himself. And yet is this incarnation of Toronto really so far removed from the present day equivalent of a western city in which all sorts of weird obsessions consume the populace to an unnatural degree?
March is employed by a medical clinic that specialises in selling blood-harvested samples of the latest celebrity viruses. These are injected into paying customers whose obsession with their idols includes experiencing their pain and distress first hand. March also smuggles samples of these viruses out of the clinic inside his own body to sell illegally via a butcher who, when not cooking up ‘celebrity cell steaks’, moonlights as a black marketeer. But things become murkier for Syd once he allows a diseased sample from dying celebrity Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon) into his bloodstream. From there things begin to get a bit messy – in more ways than one.
There’s much to admire about Antiviral, a film which exposes and satirises the various malignancies that blight our world – chiefly, that of celebrity obsession that leads to disturbing, harmful, and of course – for this is a Cronenberg film – perverted transformations of the mind and physical self. At our basest, Cronenberg shows us, we’ve become parasites hungering for experiences that mirror those of idolised non-entities.
In peculiar and audacious ways, Cronenberg’s film harkens back to the early ‘body horror’ films of his father David, like Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1986), Rabid (1977) and The Brood (1979), with a sustained tone of bleakness and sterility exquisitely engineered through the striking use of stark white interiors. True, the third act is wonky, with the impression of a narrative losing coherence and eating its own tail. But the pros far outweigh the cons for me; this is a promising, at times startling debut, handled with the aplomb of a veteran – not so surprising given its director’s pedigree. Cronenberg was hardly likely to be fumbling in the dark upon taking the plunge into cinema. He also makes canny use of E.C. Woodley’s music to provocatively support his images, something Cronenberg Sr has done for years with the aid of the incomparable Howard Shore.
The director’s real masterstroke may have been in casting Jones in the lead. The directness and intensity of his haunted eyes are remarkably persuasive, non-verbal indicators of the doom that descends upon March as he’s swallowed up by the ugly ramifications of his viral theft. The relatively inexperienced actor, best known for his work on The Last Exorcism (2010) and a small part in X-Men: First Class (2011), gives the impression of being far older than 23. Antiviral is both a wonderful throwback – like an old, unscreened gem rescued from the vaults of Cronenberg senior’s back catalogue – and refreshingly original. A follow-up is still eagerly awaited.