It’s hard living up to expectations when you unveil your debut feature film. It’s even harder when your father or mother is one of the most acclaimed and distinctive directors in the world. This is the situation young director Brandon Cronenberg finds himself in with ‘Antiviral’. As well as the anticipation that comes with a new talent, this one comes with the curiosity of how he will measure up against his father, David Cronenberg, director of such iconic films as ‘Scanners’ (1981) and ‘The Fly’ (1986). Those expecting a retread of the same ground as Cronenberg Sr might be in for a bit of a shock, though. ‘Antiviral’ might be a work of "body horror", but Brandon is a very different kind of artist, and this is a very different kind of film.
Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) works for a boutique clinic that allows the general public to contract the diseases of beloved celebrities. With his quiet manner and his almost vampiric charm, he helps these fans become one step closer to their idols. On the side, though, Syd is stealing these patented diseases by contracting them himself, breaking down the copyright and selling them on the pirate market. Things start to spiral out of control when Syd takes on a bug from the beautiful Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon)... who dies a few days later. As his body deteriorates and the world convulses in mourning over her death, Syd realises how dangerous a situation he has found himself in... and how great a commodity he has become.
In complete contrast of the visceral gooeyness of his father’s work, Brandon Cronenberg has crafted a film as sharp as a blade, as cold as an iceberg and as slick as oil. ‘Antiviral’ is a startlingly clinical film, as if it had been created in an operating theatre. The camera slides through this carefully designed and minimalist future world with intent and precision, giving the unusual and unnerving sense of an act of voyeurism. Cronenberg wisely allows the world to grow as the film grows, not giving us a monologue or a scroll of text to deliver exposition and context. He understands the shock value of the strange future he has created, and the film is bolstered by these reveals. In less capable hands, this slow delivery of information might be aggravating or off-putting, but the craft on display is entirely about intriguing us and lulling us under its spell. It’s very hard to describe without giving away most of the film’s wicked surprises. ‘Antiviral’ is definitely not for the faint-hearted though, and while its moments of horror and gore are minimal and as tasteful as they can be, they leave a strong impression and a lurch in the stomach. The inner workings of the human body dominate the film, and it daringly doesn’t shy away from anything.
‘Antiviral’ is a startlingly clinical film, as if it had been created in an operating theatre.
Central to the success of the film is Caleb Landry Jones’ performance as Syd, our protagonist and guide. The best way to describe his performance is vampiric, more so than we’ve seen on screen in a while. He moves with very particular grace, his hair is tied back and perfect, his skin alabaster white. Syd is a lone creature, disconnected from others yet as beguiling and hypnotic as a cobra. Jones throws his whole body and intellect into the role, and crafts an impressive character that never ceases to intrigue. Cronenberg is very lucky to have him as his leading man. As accomplished as the craftsmanship in this film is, it would fall apart if it weren’t for this portrayal.
‘Antiviral’ takes every one of its 108 minutes carefully, moving with orchestrated precision. Everything is geared to keeping you watching, hypnotising you with morbid fascination. It may lull a bit towards the end, but this is only to prepare you for the bravado of its finale. Whatever you expect going into this film, be prepared to have those expectations blown away. It might be disconcerting to watch at times, but there hasn’t been a film like this in a very long while - one that takes visual horror into such a classy and tailored direction. Brandon Cronenberg needn’t be worried about being compared to his father anymore. ‘Antiviral’ has put him on the map as an exciting director in his own right, and certainly one to watch out for.