It’s easy to imagine certain socially conservative audience members sitting in the audience for filmmaker Brandon Cronenberg’s latest, clutching their pearls until their knuckles bleed. But fans of extreme cinema like “Infinity Pool” are more likely to find it merely disappointing. It’s violent, sure, and it’s sexual, but it’s not a controversial exploration of challenging ideas. It’s a Souplantation salad bar of half-developed plot points and superficial graphic imagery, in service of a theme that’s about as generic as anything you’d find in a mainstream studio film.
The film starts the way so many films do, with a writer who has writer’s block, in search of inspiration. Alexandar Skarsgård (“The Northman”) plays James Foster, who wrote one book years ago and hasn’t published a damned thing since, even though he’s married to Em (Cleopatra Coleman, “A Lot of Nothing”), the daughter of a publishing magnate. So something either really terrible is about to happen to him or he’s about to learn the true meaning of Christmas.
While on vacation at a resort in a fictional country, Li Tolqa, James happens to meet his number one fan, Gabi (Mia Goth, “Pearl”) and her husband Alban (Jalil Lespert, “Dreamchild”). Gabi and Alban insist that the Fosters venture outside the barbed-wire walls of their resort town and into the country proper, where one drunken picnic, a graphic sex act, and some generalized incompetence lead James to run over one of the locals with their car.
There’s good news and there’s bad news: Li Tolqan law requires that James be executed, and immediately, by the victim’s family. But since he’s rich he can pay to have an exact mental and physical duplicate of himself created, who will die in his place. It doesn’t even cost that much. He can pull the full amount out of a single trip to the ATM.
It’s a conceit that nobody really questions since it’s so incredibly convenient for Li Tolqa’s wealthiest tourists, and the plot. Besides, James gets a bizarre rush out of watching himself get murdered, and before long he’s let his deeply traumatized wife go home without him, while he gets more deeply enmeshed with Gabi, Alban and a whole subculture of tourists who exploit this ghastly legal loophole for their amoral, grotesque amusement.
The high concept of “Infinity Pool” is genuinely intriguing and raises a lot of questions. Ethically, of course, we wonder whether these doubles are real people being bred exclusively to die in service of a corrupt system. And what does it mean to have a legal system where the wealthy can literally do anything they want so long as they’re dehumanized enough not to care about watching a piece of themselves die? Oh wait that’s kinda like America, a point so obvious that even “Infinity Pool” doesn’t bother making it.
It also raises a lot of questions about the culture in Li Tolqa, specifically how it functions and whether the citizenry are okay with this tradition — as it is described — being taken advantage of by colonialists who actively hurt them. Cronenberg has crafted an idea which would have enormous repercussions throughout an entire country, in which the main characters are completely enmeshed. It sure would be nice if we found out literally anything about that.
But Cronenberg doesn’t seem interested in addressing the vast majority of the worms he’s unleashing. Strangely, he seems more interested in the can, a plot-centric framing device that frames out the squirmiest bits. And that still might have been fine and dandy if the receptacle for “Infinity Pool” was fascinating in its own right, but instead all the film’s violent mayhem, drug-induced hallucinogenic orgies and extreme violence are little more than a means for James to explore his insecure masculinity, with the big revelation being that he sure was insecure, that’s for certain. My stars.
Any movie about a writer with writer’s block has a built-in excuse for why the protagonist can’t think of anything interesting to do. It doesn’t usually make for great cinema but hey, at least the bases are covered. It’s profoundly dull to discover that not just James, but this whole gaggle of rich hedonists have the ultimate “get out of jail free” card and can’t come up with grotesqueries more imaginative than home invasions and sex parties. Cronenberg gave his characters, and himself, the ability to do any monstrous deed and delve into the ugliest part of the human psyche, not to mention a potentially punishing screed against class inequality, Western colonialism, or any number of potentially fascinating, disruptive, challenging topics. And then he threw clones in there, just to make the possibilities even more bizarre, and he doesn’t get nearly as much out of them as you might expect, thematically or otherwise.
Instead, all the sex and violence of “Infinity Pool” revolves around whether one generic dude feels like he’s man enough, and all the vast — dare we say, infinite — potentiality of Cronenberg’s story goes unexplored and unresolved. Those who don’t normally watch ultraviolent horror movies may be moved to disgust on sheer principle, just because some of the stuff that happens is mean-spirited and gross. To people who probably wouldn’t want to see it, the film might have a powerful effect.
But if you enter with an understanding of how extreme cinema can be used to make meaningful points, and jolt an audience out of complacency, Cronenberg’s latest is milquetoast. It turns out you can show genitalia exploding out of other genitalia all you want, but if it’s in service of generic platitudes it doesn’t feel daring, and it doesn’t even horrify. It’s just dull.
“Infinity Pool” opens exclusively in theaters on Jan. 27.