Brandon Cronenberg, the son of filmmaker David Cronenberg, has never shied away from sharing his father’s body horror sensibilities. I’m all for watching an extremely fucked up movie – this is coming from someone whose favorite film of 2021 was Titane. But even the sickest, most twisted content should at least be in service of highlighting a message or thematic takeaway. With Infinity Pool, I’m not quite sure what Cronenberg is trying to say.
The confusion largely stems from his confidence in execution, and you can feel it the minute the film starts. We meet struggling writer James Foster (Alexander Skarsgård) and his wealthy wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman) on vacation at an island resort. For James, this trip is a chance to defeat his writer’s block and rediscover his inspiration. There, they meet young couple Gabi (reigning scream queen Mia Goth) and Alban (Jalil Lespert), who take them beyond the resort’s grounds and further into the fictional island culture of Li Tolqa.
After a hit-and-run accident with James at the wheel, it’s only a matter of time before the authorities find out and arrest him for his crime. But here is where the federal government of Li Tolqa presents James with a bizarre loophole of a decision: he can either be executed, or, if he has the money to pay for it, he can watch a clone of himself be executed.
How the cloning process actually works is never explained. Frankly, it’s not important. But the thought of seeing a perfectly rendered double of yourself is a chilling one. Cronenberg’s sense of dystopian world-building is one to be admired here, as he designs disturbing hallways and rooms that only hint at what goes on behind closed doors. Via a creepy psychedelic sequence of bloody sludge and flashing lights, James is remarkably cloned. As we watch James’ double prepared for execution, you’re left wondering just where the film can narratively go. Ah, you see… James watches himself be violently killed… and he likes it.
But just when you think the story is about to dive head-on into a dissection of privilege and wealth, Infinity Pool comes to a screeching halt. The ideas are there, laid bare. If you can have your double suffer the consequences instead of yourself, what would that do to your morality? Maybe it frees you, in a dangerous way? For James, the reasoning is never quite clear. His world has become entirely disrupted and thrown upside down, and yet, Cronenberg fails to keep a constant track of his conscience. Motivations behind any of his decisions are kept muddled between illogical and contrived, in favor of keeping the film moving along.
From here on out, the majority of the film involves James and his involvement with a group of wealthy and insane individuals, with Gabi and Alban revealed to be two of them. At night, they delve into violent crimes and chaotic pleasure. Why? I suppose the answer is because they can? The film doesn’t seem to have time to explore the reasoning, not when Cronenberg is firing on all cylinders in the technical department.
For a film whose world revolves around such a perverse subculture, Cronenberg films it all with neon-like hypnotic imagery. He shoots his humans up close, with shots that only show the eyes when they blink or the necks when they gulp. He has an eye for human flesh as if it is food. It makes for a stark, disturbing contrast with the gore, almost as if such violence is a natural way of life. But apart from it all looking technically impressive, and both Skarsgård and Goth giving unbelievably committed performances, the thematic core of the film rings hollow.
What is it that clicked for James? Why does he want to be involved? What is it about a certain later scene that snaps him back? Is Cronenberg condemning just the rich people, or is he saying everyone will lose their morality at some point? With the island of Li Tolqa allowing such loopholes to exist, what do they benefit out of such technology and ecosystem? Nearly all of these questions go unanswered and unaddressed, as the substantial message of the film is kept frustratingly vague.
And so we’re left with some technically impressive work, from the cinematography to the sound design to the practical effects, and the already obvious takeaway that Goth knows how to give a deranged performance with a capital D. There is a ton of political commentary and existential dread sprinkled throughout Cronenberg’s companion piece to The Purge, but sadly, he only seems interested in world-building on a vibe level and not a substance level. If only he could just pick one thematic idea and (pardon the pun) rip it apart.
Infinity Pool is screening in the Midnights section of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It will be released in select theaters from NEON on January 27.
Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute