Antiviral review

Brandon Cronenberg makes his feature-directing debut with Antiviral. Here’s our review of a disturbing, thought provoking film…

“Dakota Fanning shows off her legs as she steps out in a tiny sweater-dress and thigh-high leather boots”. 

“Kim Kardashian pours her curves into a white dress after saying she’ll lose weight.”

“Nicole Scherzinger reveals she battled with bulimia in her Pussycat Doll days.”

Those are headlines taken from the fashion section of a well known British newspaper, and illustrate the sort of obsession with celebrity and image Brandon Cronenberg satirises in his stark, unsettling debut feature, Antiviral.

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In this distorted, heightened parallel of the early 21st century, clinics collect and sell the synthesised diseases of the rich and famous. The Lucas Clinic is one such place, and Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) is one of its slickest salespeople.

“She’s perfect, somehow, isn’t she?” Syd seductively asks one of his customers, before injecting him in the cheek with a celebrity’s herpes virus. In Antiviral, the cultural adoration of the famous and wealthy has reached the point where ordinary people are doing more than copying their fashions and hairstyles – they’re now paying to have their maladies coursing through their veins, and dining on cloned chunks of celeb flesh purchased from specialist butchers.

When he’s not selling and injecting diseases at the Lucas Clinic, Syd’s sneakily copying and trading viruses on the black market. It’s this sideline that soon proves to be Syd’s undoing; despatched by his employers to collect a blood sample from sick celebrity Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon), Syd injects himself with her virus. Did he do this because he’s quietly obsessed with her, or because he senses a potential moneymaking scheme in the offing? The answer, perhaps, is both.

When Geist dies a few days later, Syd realises that not only is he terminally ill, but also that the celebrity’s death is part of a much wider conspiracy.

A blend of sci-fi, horror, mystery and satirical drama, Antiviral is every bit as strange and nauseating as it might sound. Using his restricted budget to his advantage, Brandon Cronenberg presents a Kubrickian world of white, black and splashes of crimson. It’s a future devoid of art or creativity, where images of beautiful men and women are the only things that adorn the walls.

Brandon Cronenberg, of course, is the son of David, Canada’s foremost exporter of toe-curling body horror, and the younger director appears to be self-consciously channelling some of his father’s imagery in Antiviral. The weird mutations, fever dreams and slabs of quivering flesh are straight out of Videodrome, while one character’s question of “What does the virus want?” sounds remarkably like the questions the elder Cronenberg asked in Shivers and The Fly.

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Technically, Antiviral is excellent, with clean, distinctive cinematography and simple yet compelling set design; for a debut, it’s an assured piece of filmmaking. Unfortunately, the plot meanders rather than builds, and as viscerally button-pushing as its premise is, the question of why average people would pay for a rich person’s virus is never compellingly answered.

Caleb Landry Jones, however, is excellent in the lead, and Antiviral provides the perfect showcase for his unusual talent. Morally rudderless and utterly self-interested though the protagonist is, Jones nevertheless brings charisma and a captivating sort of resolve to his performance – a remarkable achievement, given that he spends so much of the film looking thoroughly ill, and hobbling about like Richard the Third.

In fact, the entire film appears to have been shot through a gauze filter of pestilence. There’s a chill in the air that is almost palpable, as though Antiviral’s fictional society is somehow stricken and dying. The repeated close-ups of injections and blood withdrawals are nauseating, and the religious allusions are sometimes heavy-handed – the devouring of celebrity steaks is but one example – but the net result is dizzyingly effective.

Although Antiviral isn’t without blemish, it’s still a thought-provoking and memorable first feature from Brandon Cronenberg. Landry Jones, having made relatively small appearances in movies such as X-Men: First Class and The Last Exorcism, proves that he’s more than capable of carrying a movie almost single-handedly, and Antiviral surely marks a significant moment in the careers of both actor and director.

Antiviral is out now in selected UK cinemas, with its home release to follow on the 11th February.

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3 out of 5