After the success of Possessor, Brandon Cronenberg is back with Infinity Pool, a film that will certainly surprise and unnerve audiences, but that attempt to push the audience’s buttons can be felt at every step of the way. In one of the film’s first astonishing moments—of which there are many—we get a close-up shot of a penis as it ejaculates (the first reminder that somehow, this film is now rated R??). Throughout, Infinity Pool, there are moments like this where it seems like Brandon Cronenberg is simply jerking off his shocking ideas with little purpose other than to take the audience aback.
Infinity Pool begins with James (Alexander Skarsgård) and Em (Cleopatra Coleman), a couple vacationing on a resort in the fictional location of Li Tolqa. James is an author who hasn’t put out a new book in six years and comes to this place to seek inspiration. This vacation destination is a getaway for the wealthy, complete with a barbwire fence to keep out the locals, who aren’t a fan of the tourists.
The couple meets Gabi (Mia Goth) and Alban (Jalil Lespert), who illegally take them out of the resort, and to a nearby beach. On the way home late at night, James hits a pedestrian on the road, killing him instantly. It turns out that Li Tolqa has a low tolerance for crime, and after a night in jail, James is sentenced to death. However, Li Tolqa has a loophole for tourists—part of their tourism initiative—where a clone can be made of that person to be put to death instead of the convicted person. James agrees to have a double made of himself, and after watching himself die, his life and time in this strange land gets far more complicated than ever expected.
As one could imagine, this is a scenario ripe for Cronenberg’s disturbing concepts. For example, during the assassination of James’s double, the child of the man that was killed stabs the double over and over again in the stomach, with blood streaming out of the many holes in his gut, as the child smiles at this act of depraved vengeance.
Without spoiling the twists and turns of Infinity Pool, which again, there are many, Infinity Pool shows Cronenberg at his best when he’s more abstract with his horrors. As hallucinogenic substances are brought into the story, Cronenberg creates terrifying yet seductive imagery that combines extreme sexual imagery, disconcerting horror elements, and just a complete unawareness of what the hell is going on. From the hypnotic editing by James Vandewater (V/H/S/94), absolutely stunning cinematography from Cronenberg’s frequent collaborator Karim Hussain, and the eerie score by Tim Hecker, these almost montages of carnal desires are some of the most remarkable sequences in the entire film.
But the problem with Infinity Pool is the decision to set up this fascinating concept about how rich, white tourists treat often poor vacation spots as their own personal playgrounds, and instead of exploring that fully, decides to go down a path of weird-as-shit concepts with seemingly little reason to exist other than to jolt the audience and give the world even more Mia Goth memes. Sure, some of the most memorable scenes from Infinity Pool comes in the film’s final third full of insanity, including a hilariously acted scene where Goth rests atop a moving car, but it’s not as if this craziness is truly saying anything about the central conceit. By comparison, Possessor was able to combine the horror elements into the larger narrative that was presented, but Infinity Pool instead decides to just go off the deep end for the hell of it.
Yet this exploration of base urges makes for two awe-inducing performances by Skarsgård and Goth. Both have fully embraced the true insanity of this story, and are well-aware of the humor inherent in this concept. Skarsgård gets unspeakably unhinged as this tale progresses, while Goth simply accepts the mania this story requires and plays up to it. After this last year that brought us both X and Pearl, Infinity Pool is continued proof that no one does disconcerting characters quite like Goth.
Infinity Pool is a journey that it’s hard not to get sucked into while it’s happening, laughing at its absurdity, and shocked by the darkness Cronenberg is harnessing. But like the morning after a wild party once the hangover is winding down, it’s easy to look back and wonder what the hell happened in Cronenberg’s latest. It’s not that Infinity Pool is too much, it’s just that the film’s absurdity isn’t quite playing to the ideas that Cronenberg set up early on in a way that melds the two together. For example, Cronenberg (who also wrote the film) presents the idea of a celebration known as The Summoning, which the Li Tolqa observe each year. All we’re really told of this annual event is that people wear disturbing masks that look like they were made by Leatherface, if he took his skin masks and put them in the washer on the wrong setting. Yet there’s really no rationalization for this celebration of these faces, other than that it gives the film’s characters cool masks to wear once all hell starts breaking loose.
Cronenberg still is one of the most intriguing horror filmmakers working today, and when Infinity Pool is working, it’s unlike anything that you’ve ever seen. But when comparing Cronenberg’s approaches in this to something like Possessor, it becomes clear that it’s better when there’s a method to Cronenberg’s madness.
Infinity Pool made its world debut at the Sundance Film Festival and will open in theaters on January 27.