[108 minutes. Unrated. Director: Brandon Cronenberg]
On one hand, it’s a highly ironic (and apt) metaphor for our global obsession with celebrity culture: if injecting diseases carried by soon-to-be-deceased stars brings fans closer to their icons, the question is not “why” but “why not?”
Continuing this superficial attitude: for all the faux celebs mentioned throughout the film, we never know why any one is famous. In a very literal example of “conspicuous consumption,” grayish meat products derived from celebrity cells are consumed in an act of (assumed) synthesis.
Heck, even ANTIVIRAL’s notion of encrypting diseases to make them accessible only to the purchaser is like a tongue-in-cheek riff on the anti-piracy warning that prefaces every DVD nowadays.
Furthermore, the film is about subverting the conventions of beauty and masculinity that cinema has flaunted since the days before Marilyn Monroe and James Dean.
Take Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones – THE LAST EXORCISM), for instance: a homely, pale, and pony-tailed salesman for celebrity viruses, working within the bright-white walls of the Lucas Clinic, he is the antithesis of a desirable protagonist. On a moral level, this persuasive yet sleazy character is not above using himself as a vessel to smuggle viruses for distribution on the black market. When he infects himself with whatever’s befallen blonde beauty Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon – COSMOPOLIS), he finds himself entangled in a conspiracy between rival disease hucksters while trying to stay alive. The way Syd’s physical appearance gels with his moral duplicity and his eventual descent into a wheezing, blood-spitting aberration of humanity is handled with proper queasiness – he transmutes into his own distinctive metaphor.
Writer-director Brandon Cronenberg (son of David) shows great interest in satirizing common perceptions of “cool” and “sexy.” Syd is frequently seen taking his temperature with an electronic thermometer – a replacement for the cigarette as cinema’s long-loved symbol of rugged bad-assery; when a walking-cane is used, it may as well be standing in for a motorcycle; and when a hand smeared in disease-infested blood is raised to a healthy face, it’s the equivalent of a young rebel aiming a gun at a small-town store clerk.
Hell, Jones even speaks in a gravelly, Brandoesque baritone to drive the point home. It’s a physically expressive performance that signals the promise of an up-and-coming character actor.
That being said, ANTIVIRAL is sometimes too brainy – and too preoccupied with establishing its “difference” from typical genre fare – for its own good. Villainous characters hash out their conflicts with five-dollar words instead of the venereal aberrations associated with the elder Cronenberg’s films (alas, no cancer-guns to be found here). In other words: a little less talk and a little more creative grotesquery would have gone a long way. Additionally, the pacing is awkward – after a strong opening, things drag for 30 minutes before building up again (less of the ironic, water-cooler banter between Lucas Clinic employees and fewer sinister subplots would have helped tighten things up).
While ANTIVIRAL won’t make anyone forget the more renowned Cronenberg, it’s still exciting to witness the cinematic birth of an intriguing new talent. Here’s hoping this new flesh only strengthens with time.
3 out of 5 stars
Jonny Numb (aka Jonathan Weidler) is co-host of THE LAST KNOCK podcast.
Find his movie reviews at: http://numbviews.livejournal.com
(Photo from Flicks.co of New Zealand)