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‘Crimes of the Future’ Film Review: David Cronenberg Plays the Hits, But Always With Style

Whether this is the Canadian auteur’s final film, he offers closing arguments on his thematic and visual obsessions

This review of “Crimes of the Future” was first published May 23, 2022, after its premiere at Cannes Film Festival.

It’s hard to say whether “Crimes of the Future” will be David Cronenberg’s final film — never believe a director who says they’re quitting — but it definitely feels like a closing argument, one that both reaffirms the filmmaker’s favorite themes and stylistic choices while also reflecting a shift in his point of view.

We’ve been here before with Cronenberg; his 1999 “Existenz” also had the feel of a greatest-hits collection. But for audiences starved for brash choices from one of the cinema’s boldest living provocateurs, even a rehash seems fresher than corporate-assembled, focus-group-approved content.

Should this be the Canadian auteur’s final feature, he won’t be leaving on a high note: “Crimes of the Future” won’t be remembered alongside masterpieces like “Dead Ringers,” “The Fly,” “The Brood,” or “Crash.” Nonetheless, as a writer-director, Cronenberg continues to plumb his obsessions, both narrative and visual, and he brings enough energy and bravado to the mix to make this an oft-told story that he’s recounting as though for the first time.

Borrowing the title (but little else) from one of his earliest films, “Crimes of the Future” takes place in a near-future dystopia where pain has become a thing of the past and surgery is both a hot trend and the source of a new brand of performance art. “Surgery is the new sex,” proclaims one character in a sloganeering line of dialogue, one of several instances in the film that seems to underline or at least reaffirm ideas Cronenberg has been exploring throughout his career.

The stars of the surgery-as-performance-art scene are Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen), who’s been growing a variety of new and fascinating organs, and his collaborator Caprice (Léa Seydoux), who removes them from him in front of adoring audiences. While Saul is an art star, he’s also the target of criticism from people who think he should keep his new body parts rather than take them out.

Saul and Caprice meet regularly with the National Organ Registry, run by devoted Saul fans Wippet (Don McKellar) and Timlin (Kristen Stewart). On his own, Saul also has secret meetings with Detective Cope (Welket Bungué, 2020’s “Berlin Alexanderplatz”), as the authorities are trying to crack down on people who are being radically transformed by their new organ growth, whether that growth is organic or induced.

Chief among the inducers is Lang (Scott Speedman), leader of a rebel group that has been modifying themselves to subsist on plastic and other manufacturing wastes. He wants Saul and Caprice to perform an autopsy on his murdered son, who was born with plastic-eating abilities, as a way to reveal the next step in human evolution.

If one wanted to make the case that Cronenberg once presented “the new flesh” as a warning about what people were doing to their minds and bodies, and where that would take us as a society, “Crimes of the Future” seems more welcoming of the idea. If we turn into a race that eats garbage, the film argues, maybe that’s both a survival skill and a penance for what we have collectively done to the planet.

Even with that shift in perspective, there’s a great deal of thematic familiarity at play here – when a character says “Human evolution is the concern” in a Cronenberg movie, you practically expect an anvil to fall from the ceiling. And what was once a throwaway line in “Dead Ringers” about having beauty pageants for internal organs actually pops up as a subplot here.

“Crimes of the Future” sees Cronenberg working once again with collaborators like composer Howard Shore and production designer Carol Spier, and that déjà vu bleeds into their work, even as their contributions are both accomplished and intricate. Does it look cool when the characters trot out surgical instruments that look like bones and claws, or mechanical devices that look like tumors or insect exoskeletons? Of course it does. Is there an inescapable been-there-done-that feeling tied in with beholding such sights in a Cronenberg movie? Absolutely.

(Cinematographer Douglas Koch steps in for Peter Suschitzky and creates an appropriately dank setting, although it’s clear in Welket Bungué’s first scene that the lighting was not set up to accommodate the film’s principal Black actor, who disappears into the shadows while his white scene partners do not.)

The performances here are generally in the intense-library-whisper mode that the director favors, and while you’d think that would be the perfect setting for Kristen Stewart, she conversely goes big, loud, and goofy in an uncharacteristically awkward bit of acting. Usually among the most centered and subtle performers, Stewart seems to have built her character from the outside in, and it’s jarringly off-putting. One might be tempted to compare it to “SNL” sketch work were it not for the fact that Stewart’s actual “SNL” work has generally been more grounded and believable.

Stealing their handful of scenes are Tanaya Beatty (“Yellowstone”) and Nadia Litz as Berst and Router, the technicians who service and repair Saul and Caprice’s various mechanical surgical doodads; the characters coo and purr over Caprice’s autopsy device like it was one of the sportscars from “Crash,” only they do so with a delighted eroticism that feels recognizably human. They (and McKellar) inject what humor the film has to offer.

There was lot of hype about the level of gore and grotesquerie on display, but for a movie that’s mostly about surgery, it resembles a PG-13 slasher movie, in that there are lots of incisions but very little actual blood on display. At his most memorable, Cronenberg creates viscerally unforgettable images that horrify, yes, but they also provoke with big, shocking ideas about our very selves – the monstrousness of disease, the perhaps inevitable hybrid of the corporeal and the mechanical, the determination of the self. With “Crimes of the Future,” we’re left with a remove from the material, where no matter what happens, it’s all just performance art.

“Crimes of the Future” opens Friday in U.S. theaters.

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