Starring Caleb Landry Jones, Sarah Gadon, Douglas Smith, and Malcolm McDowell
Written and directed by Brandon Cronenberg
Brandon Cronenberg gathered attention for his short film Broken Tulips, which screened at TIFF in the Emerging Artists program a few years back and was successful enough to gain funding and expand the premise into his debut feature. Being his father’s son may have had something to do with it, but to be fair that connection is what interested me enough to add Antiviral to my slate. As a debut film, I found its satire of celebrity obsession interesting, its performances tight and focused, and its Trent Reznor inspired score entertaining. That being said, there are issues in the script and the pacing lags a bit, but Antiviral remains an interesting debut.
Antiviral is the story of a near future in which the obsession of celebrity has reached such a level that obsessive fans are able to share a disturbing biological communion with their idols by commercially purchasing and injecting themselves with viruses and illnesses the celebrities have contracted, sometimes intentionally. Our protagonist Syd (Caleb Landry Jones) works for one of these viral clinics, and is regarded as one of the better sales agents, as we are shown in one of his sales pitches in the opening moments of the film. Sid also is in the business for himself – he quietly smuggles out samples of the viruses he offers the only way he knows how, by injecting the viruses into his own body and extracting them later to sell on the black market. This does come with some inherent risk as Syd is constantly sick and monitoring his temperature at all times and for good reason. Shortly after we are introduced to Syd, he is asked to step in for an employee and collect the latest virus from a willing starlet Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon). The extraction is successful and seeing an opportunity, Syd injects a pure blood sample into his body before turning over the rest to his employer. Within hours Syd begins to fall seriously ill and learns that the virus he injected could be fatal. He spends the rest of the film learning of the nature of the virus, its connection to the companies he is employed by, and the conspiracy that he has inadvertently found himself the centre of.
Antiviral is a strong debut feature that benefits from an excellent concept and some fantastic sequences of body horror. The director has stated publicly that he has never seen or been interested in his father’s work, but his film seems to indicate otherwise, as it seems like ideas were directly lifted from the elder Cronenberg’s earlier films. The moments of gore aren’t very gratuitous or terrifying and there is a very subtle art-house beauty present in the design of the practical effects. The idea of the melding of technology and flesh is just as present in Antiviral as it is in Videodrome or Dead Ringers or even Naked Lunch. That being said, Cronenberg does have his own ideas and vision and I laud him for making the film his way. This is very obvious in his decision to shoot the film nearly entirely in front of white backgrounds and images to focus and keep the viewer’s attention on the actors and the effects
I enjoyed all the performances in Antiviral, particularly Caleb Landry Jones. Jones is choosing a variety of work to challenge his skillset and clearly understands his limits and what works for him. I have seen two films with him this year and it appears as though the actor is working to strengthen his weaknesses. The supporting cast is all up to task and don’t seem to be reaching or overacting, including a surprise cameo that strengthened the needed exposition at the halfway point of the film.
Although the film’s plot and intricacies are completely ludicrous at times, its ideas and the satire on display is spot on with the present day and time. I enjoyed Antiviral wholly because of its introduction of a director who, just like his father, has an original voice. I am looking very forward to seeing what he can present to an audience outside of the body horror sub-genre. I think it’s safe to say that Brandon Cronenberg is a Canadian talent to look out for and Antiviral is a good place to start.