The Auteur Brood
Following in a parent’s creative footsteps in far from uncommon in Hollywood circles, but children of famous directors usually progress to become successful actors (think of the Minnelli, Rossellini, Huston and Downey clans). In the rarer cases where the progeny decides to take up directing themselves, they often go to great lengths to distinguish their output from the style and preoccupations of the parent. So Marcel Ophüls gravitated towards dissecting documentaries that were the antithesis of his father’s swooping melodramas, and the younger Coppolas favor intimate quirkiness over the grander follies of father Francis.
Only in Canada do they do things differently. The deadpan humor of Jason Reitman’s films could reasonably be characterized as coming from the same stable as his father Ivan’s. And now Brandon Cronenberg follows the template initiated by his father David so closely that comparisons will inevitably be included in any review of the film.
I’ve probably failed in my attempt not to dwell on the similarities too much, but Brandon evidently decided it was better to intentionally invite such associations because his father’s shadow is so inescapable. In that respect the film can only be seen as an extremely brave debut, suggesting the younger Mr. Cronenberg could yet become as bold and courageous filmmaker as his lineage suggests.
In a dyspeptic alternate world, Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) works for The Lucas Clinic, a firm which specializes in harvesting diseases from celebrities and selling them to paying clients. March’s daily sales pitch is a soporific monologue about the inherent and immutable beauty of celebrities that seems to lull his clients into submission. March is also the in-house expert at using a machine that can encrypt and decode the genetic code of viruses to protect them from piracy. In a memorable visual touch, the machine does this by visualizing the genetic information as scrambled human faces. By day March may be the model employee, but by night he’s secretly transporting celebrity viruses in his own bloodstream to the company’s backstreet rivals, a highly dangerous activity that results in paranoia, nightmares and increasingly debilitating illness. But the real trouble begins when March injects himself with the diseased blood of superstar celebrity Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon), who later goes on to die. March then finds himself in a race against time to find a cure for the disease, as he becomes entwined in a much larger clash between two rival corporations.
If the synopsis makes it sound like a racy futuristic thriller with a protagonist combating the clock to thwart the disease he’s carrying, in the vein of thrillers like “Escape From New York”/“D.O.A”/“Crank,” then expectations need adjusting. The element of March’s quest for survival doesn’t come into play until the final third of the film, by which time we’ve become immune to the glacial pace, hypnotic performances, deliberate wordplay (note how characters repeat typical tabloid phrases such as “ordeal”) and clinical production design. In fact with its mysterious corporations, antiseptic white surfaces and icy characters the film mostly resembles art-house horrors like Todd Haynes’s “Safe” or Julia Leigh’s “Sleeping Beauty” (the scene in which Emily Browning calmly inserts tubes down her throat is especially echoed here).
Brandon Cronenberg takes a long time setting up his world and his central character, but even so because his script is so averse to explicit explanation it takes a long time for us to work out exactly what March is up to. Even when we have grasped it, we’re never sure quite what his motivations are. If his interests are solely financial then why, as a character inquires of him, does he inject himself with the viruses rather than transport them in vitro? If on the other hand he is just as celebrity-obsessed as everyone else, why does he always act like he’s above it all, refusing to engage in his colleagues’ banal banter? Mr. Jones delivers a wonderfully Cronenbergian performance as March; his ivory white visage and overcoat reminiscent of the characters Ronald Mlodzik used to play in films like “Crimes of the Future.” It’s also one of sickliest looking central performances since Christian Bale in “The Machinist.” But being such an enigmatic cipher we never quite feel like we’re in on his journey.
If Mr. Cronenberg is more interested in exploring the nexus of possible futures for media culture and corporate biology, then he’s operating in similar terrain to his father’s “Videodrome.” The emphasis in both films is on the science rather than satire, so the celebrity obsessed world we’re presented with is rarely mined for comedic purposes, unlike for example the raft of 1990s comedies in this area (“Being John Malkovich,” “The Truman Show”). Instead we’re straight-facedly presented with ideas to ruminate upon, such as Malcolm McDowell’s Dr. Abendroth opining that celebrity obsession is an attempt to reclaim a collective consciousness that’s been eroded since the death of religion.
David Cronenberg made “Videodrome” on the back of a run of more overtly generous genre films that confined their philo-scientific ideas to the background for those that wished to look for them. Many now see “Videodrome” as the perfectly encapsulated culmination of both Mr. Cronenberg’s command of generic convention and the flexing of his more artistic, exploratory side. But Brandon Cronenberg himself hasn’t had the same period of apprenticeship — He’s boldly set out from the start to make a determinedly cerebral horror film, which isn’t such an easy proposition. The elliptical vagueness of tone that the younger Mr. Cronenberg is striving for is difficult to achieve, and in this case it comes across as too willfully arch for the viewer to get a handle on. Character motivation may be a mundane phrase to a filmmaker positioning himself outside the mainstream, but March is such an opaque central character it’s detrimental to our understanding of the story.
However, he’s directed a film of which his father can certainly be proud: a horrific drama with some meaty moments and ghoulish imagery that — despite its limitations — is a promising and distinctive debut that would probably have found an audience as a result of its own merits.
Opens on Feb. 1 in Britain and on April 12 in Manhattan.
Written and directed by Brandon Cronenberg; director of photography, Karim Hussain; edited by Mathew Hannam; music by E. C. Woodley; production design by Arvinder Grewal; produced by Niv Fichman; released by IFC Midnight. Running time: 1 hour 41 minutes. This film is rated 15 by B.B.F.C. and not rated by M.P.A.A.
WITH: Caleb Landry Jones (Syd March), Sarah Gadon (Hannah Geist), Malcolm McDowell (Dr. Abendroth), Nicholas Campbell (Dorian), Douglas Smith (Edward Porris), Wendy Crewson (Mira Tesser), Joe Pingue (Arvid) and Sheila McCarthy (Dev Harvey).