Antiviral

Antiviral.jpg.scaled696-940x380Is it strictly fair to judge a young artist’s work against the work of his or her parent? In some cases the notion seems irrelevant. Sofia Coppola, for instance, has made her own distinctive mark with films rather unlike those by her father Francis. If Brandon Cronenberg had been consciously interested in stepping out of the shadow of his father David, he might have made a romantic comedy or a western — anything but a sterile, slow-moving biological thriller that unavoidably raises comparisons to Cronenberg pére’s early films like Rabid and Shivers. Cronenberg fils has written and directed Antiviral, in which celebrity-obsessed people pay to be infected with viruses that came from their favorite stars.

There’s a seed of satire in this, but only a seed. Cronenberg doesn’t have much to say about celebrity culture or its reductio ad absurdum in the form of fans vying to catch a famous strain of herpes (or lining up to eat artificial steaks cloned from the muscle cells of stars). Most of Antiviral is a poky and mannered affair focusing on Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones), an employee of the Lucas Clinic who smuggles celeb viruses in his own body. He becomes fixated on ailing star Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon), who’s dying of a mystery virus. The body-consciousness of the premise links Antiviral to your choice of David Cronenberg films, including Videodrome and even Crash, in which some of the characters wanted to re-enact famous celebrity car accidents. It was funnier there.

That’s definitely one thing missing: humor, or at least wit. David Cronenberg can do deadpan with the best of them, but there’s an active and playful imagination behind the poker face. People may have talked and acted like the undead in Crash, but the quiet, subversive comedy lay in the contrast between the characters’ dry-ice demeanor and the outrageous situations they put themselves in, helplessly and obsessively. In Antiviral, everyone wanders around as if underwater, inside hermetically-sealed compositions that scream “art movie.” The young David Cronenberg did this sort of thing in his early student films, but he had the sense and the mercy to keep them an hour or shorter. This goddamn thing crawls along for an hour and fifty minutes, with little to look at for long stretches except the unpleasant, stringy-haired, mush-mouthed Caleb Landry Jones as he limps around scowling and eventually drooling blood.

Oh, yes, it does get bloody. We see dark gore being vomited up a number of times, or coughed up, or smeared onto gleaming white walls. After a while we come to look forward to the red, because it’s a change from the movie’s relentless black-on-white color scheme. Almost everyone in the movie is pale, too, and I suppose the only reason the filmmakers didn’t go all the way and shoot in black and white was that the movie would’ve looked even more pretentious than it already does. Everyone whispers, and what little music we get is discordant noise, and aesthetically the whole thing is like being stuck in a dentist’s chair for two hours. There’s no life here, no passion, and we certainly don’t care about Syd March’s ill-defined mission to find out about that mystery virus. Antiviral is what happens when you make a movie around a fleetingly interesting idea but forget to find a story in it.

About an hour into it, Malcolm McDowell turns up as a doctor treating Hannah Geist, and we lean towards him gratefully. He doesn’t camp it up — he’s as quiet as everyone else — but the simple theatrical snap of his voice is a blessing. Antiviral is anti-entertainment in a way that even David Cronenberg’s most stubbornly interiorized work never is; it’s boring. I hate to say this; David Cronenberg himself has long since abandoned this type of body-politic chiller, and I’d hoped that his son might have the chops to pick up the mantle. But if anyone not related to Cronenberg had made Antiviral, I’d have the same complaints. Perhaps now that Brandon Cronenberg has gotten this out of his system, he’ll feel free to make his own way, his own movies.

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