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The Cool Cannibals

Gautam Valluri

Malcolm McDowell and Caleb Landry Jones in Antiviral (2012)

Brandon Cronenberg’s directional debut Antiviral (2012) is quietly impressive.

While comparisions to his father David are unavoidable, the younger Cronenberg stands out on his own. In fact, the film seems to resonate more closely to the style of Stanley Kubrick than David Cronenberg.

The film is set in what seems to be the near future in an alternate universe where celebrity worship has escalated to unhealthy levels.

The subjects of this obsessive adoration now sell their cells to their devotees to devour as food (‘celebrity stakes’). Cronenberg Jr doesn’t shy away from the rather literal depiction of this form of celebrity cannibalism and instead presents it in a rather matter-of-fact manner.

The more important function in the film however, is the role of ‘clinics’ that sample celebrity illnesses and administer them to the fans so that they may share in the suffering of their idols and thus, coming closer to them. These diseases are administered through the injection of the virus taken directly from the celebrity’s body. There is a tone of deep eroticism that is suggested as the shots of needles penetrating the skin are shown in extreme close-ups (the director insists that all were real). The idea of having someone else’s bodily fluid penetrated into your body is like the cannibalistic metaphor mentioned above, literal and thought-provoking.

At its heart, Antiviral is a heavily conceptual film and as conceptual films go, there are certain Règle du jeu that must be explained to the audience. Now think of Inception (2010) and its brilliant sci-fi premise that required so much exposition from the script throughout its two and a half hour running time. There never really is enough time to explain all the ‘rules’ and only so many visual ways a director can get the message across. These films inevitably turn into a classroom session- like Cobb teaching the new recruit Ariadne how dreamland architecture works or Morpheus teaching Neo what the Matrix is and how it came to be.

Fortunately, Cronenberg is resourceful enough to favour visual ambiguity over direct exposition. He doesn’t show the need to explain everything to his audience verbally and thus gives them enough breathing room to fill in the blanks with their own perspective on the happenings on screen. Details are revealed in check-out lines, through ‘Lucas Clinic’ TV advertisements, in horrific hallucinations and in news reports. This is the sort of method one can imagine Duncan Jones employing in his ‘conceptual’ science fiction films.

Even with the above mentioned risks, Cronenberg is able to pull off an impressive film mainly because he gets it right at the two significant levels of image and sound. His film is populated by fantastic production design that is complemented brilliantly by Karim Hussain’s cinematography. Every frame of the film feels ‘sanitized’ and one can almost smell the clinical disinfectant. Stark whites and unrealistic blacks lend a tone of inhuman monochromaticism to film and the ridiculously pale complexion of Caleb Landry Jones’ skin doesn’t help too much. The horrid disease-induced hallucinations carry a tone of poetic calm and the parts with blood smearing feel surprisingly unshocking and almost painterly.

The sound completes the atmosphere of the film. It takes what the visuals have carefully evoked and ‘fixes’ them firmly into a very precise uncomfortable corner of your mind. The largely electronica-dominated score hardly ever tries to be ‘musical’ let alone cinematic and instead borders on noise. It creates an unsettling feel on the lines of A Clockwork Orange (1971).

The performances of Caleb Landry Jones and Sarah Gadon are very understated and blend in seamlessly into the overall atmosphere of the film. The unfamiliarity of these actors is what adds to the discomfort of the film and only with the arrival of Malcolm McDowell’s character one has some sense of familiarity but that doesn’t distract the audience from the film.

Overall, Brandon Cronenberg is someone to watch in the coming years. His debut is marked with remarkable craftsmanship and a deep understanding of his craft. While the initial reactions dismissed him as a product of his father’s style, he transcended that phase quickly and seems to have found decent praise and a small audience of his own. He attributes the conception of this idea to two incidents- the first, of his bout with a flu which he had received from someone else and the thought of his illness originating from someone else’s body and the second, an episode of Jimmy Kimmel where guest Sarah Michelle Gellar said she had a cold and said if she sneezed she would infect everyone in the audience and to which she received a loud cheer and applause.

Antiviral is interesting and put together well enough that it doesn’t seem to fall apart very easily. If critical acclaim is not its destiny then perhaps a cult following is.