This review is part of our coverage of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
The Pitch: More than just a chip off the old block, Brandon Cronenberg (son of David) has quickly carved out a bloody, putrid niche next to his father’s works, bouncing off the elder Cronenberg’s fusion of body horror and social critique with his own, more fitful variations on similar themes. His third film, Infinity Pool, doubles down on the hedonistic, transgressive work he parlayed in 2020’s Possessor, it’s as bone-deep crazy as it is occasionally uneven. But that lopsided nature just works in the younger filmmaker’s favor, creating something as bonkers to watch as it is confounding to think about.
The fictional island of La Tolqa has become quite the resort destination for the young, rich, and filthy — including wealthy daddy’s girl Em (Cleopatra Coleman) and her boyfriend, James Foster (Alexander Skarsgård), a failed novelist whose last (and only) work was six years ago; he’s hoping the sun and accommodating customs of the La Tolqa people will serve as inspiration.
Instead, they fall in with some of the resort’s other tourists, including a mysterious woman (Mia Goth‘s scintillating, unhinged Gabi) who flatters James’ attention. But in typical I Know What You Did Last Summer fashion, James accidentally runs over a local farmer one drunken, pitch-black night, and it’s here he learns that the La Tolqa justice system is “brutal” and “filthy”; most crimes are punishable by death, traditionally administered by the victim’s eldest son.
There’s an out, though, at least if you have enough money, as Thomas Kretschmann’s menacing Detective Thresh explains: For the right price, they will manufacture a clone of you who will be executed instead. You’ve just got to sit there and watch. And that’s only the beginning of James’ descent into madness, his encounter putting him in touch with a gang of wealthy tourists who see the cloning process as a way to indulge their most violent fantasies and get off scot-free.
You’ve Gone Wrong Around the Eyes: Like his father — even more so, let’s say — Brandon Cronenberg’s works love to push buttons, even just for their own sake. And Infinity Pool, with its NC-17-caliber deluge of crimson and cum, is no different; disquieting close-ups capture everything from bashed-in skulls, breaking apart bone fragment by bone fragment, to Skarsgård’s throbbing member gushing to completion thanks to a helpful hand.
If nothing else, Infinity Pool is a study in extremity, a litmus test to see just how much Cronenberg can get away with. From the opening minutes, he seeks to disorient, introducing both the shiny resort and the downtrodden huts outside of it with loping, curving barrel roll shots that leave you unsure which way is up. And it just gets crazier from there, with disquieting images of red/blue goop, characters wearing traditional masks that look like disfigured visages, and the imperfections of the human body laid bare for our disgust.
All this squicky-icky extremity dovetails nicely into Cronenberg’s core concerns, one of several lobbed back and forth through Infinity Pool‘s two-hour runtime. If you’re cloned, how do you know you’re the original? If you can buy your way past death, what’s to stop you from doing whatever you want with impunity? It’s these convos, laid out over the beginning of the film’s second half, that start calibrating all the cinematic sleaze into a more cogent point about our relationship to wealth and our bodies.
Skarsgård makes for an interesting conduit to discuss these issues, with his leading-man body and character-actor predilections — he’s the kind of handsome face that could slum it up in Marvel pictures until retirement, but he’d rather take big swings as tormented, brutalized men in this, The Northman, and elsewhere. And we’re all the better for it, as he screams, crawls, and dissociates with haunting intensity.
I Need the BunChop: But what helps Infinity Pool weather all this gut-busting extremity, its enormous swings in tone and topic, is a pitch-black sense of humor that cuts through the noise and lets us treat it like a joke.
It’s hardly The White Lotus, though the two have similar targets in their crosshairs — the idle rich whose bank accounts have outpaced their moral compasses. But Cronenberg’s splattercore take on class critique goes so far into horror as to circle back around to hilarity, dialing up its absurdity to gut-busting (or, in one case, gut-stabbing) levels. Gabby describes early on her job as one of those “Has this ever happened to you?” actresses, the ones who have to believably “fail” at a common household task to make the as-seen-on-TV product seem like a miracle; she hilariously demonstrates on a bagel.
And really, it’s Goth who carries this demented strain of the film, particularly once she truly has her hooks in James’ gormless failure. Somewhere between femme fatale and outright villain, her Gabby goes off the deep end in more ways than one by the third act, culminating in a cackling, taunting turn that almost (almost) puts Pearl to shame. She, more than anyone, feels like the avatar for Cronenberg’s techno-misanthropy, and she works her mouth around each terrifying syllable with the squeaky menace of Jennifer Tilly in the Chucky flicks.
The Verdict: Pure shock cinema can often feel like empty artistic masturbation, and it’s tempting to accuse Cronenberg of doing so with his works, especially given the wild swings and orgiastic setpieces of Infinity Pool.
But there’s just more under the hood than your typical imitators: the antic disposition of the idle rich, the way infinite money can absolve the rich of any accountability, and the ever-predatory nature of colonial tourism. Wrap it up in a package this wild, shocking, and perverse, and it makes for a delightful bloody mess that you’ll want to go back to. (Just don’t forget the barf bag.)
Where’s It Playing? Following its Sundance Film Festival premiere, Infinity Pool hits theaters on January 27th.