It’s been eight years, but David Cronenberg is back with a vengeance, and he has returned to the subgenre he’s synonymous with. Following Titane’s historic Palme d'Or win last year, it’s safe to say that body horror is bigger than it has ever been, so it’s natural to assume we’ll be seeing an influx of these films in due time. But Cronenberg returning from his assumed retirement is surprising, especially given his track record through the 2000’s. After eXistenZ, he no longer seemed interested in how the body works and moved on to how the brain works. Every journey though, must come full circle, and Cronenberg is bringing it back to where it all began with Crimes of the Future, a film that takes its name from one of his earliest films (I too, initially thought this was a remake). Still keeping with the times, Cronenberg brought back actor Viggo Mortensen, who became his heavy hitter throughout the new millennium, with the two churning out a hat-trick of films from 2005-2011. So how does this new pulsating parable stack up in a career that spans half a century?
Somewhere in a climate and pollution ravaged future, the human body has evolved to where the sense of pain is all but nonexistent, leaving the general population apathetic. People are still morbidly curious however, as the only bodies that still experience pain are beginning to develop new organs as a result of “Accelerated Evolution Syndrome.” Saul Tenser (Mortensen), a performance artist with AES hosts live dissections, where his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux) removes these new non-vitals from his body to crowds of hipsters. The pair’s celebrity status begins to attract the attention of various figures; a couple of bureaucratic fans from the National Organ Registry, a detective, and a mysterious cult trying to change the course of this new evolution. Their leader, Lang Dotrice (Scott Speedman) demands that the pair perform a live autopsy for their audience as a means of furthering their twisted cause. A cause that maybe Saul is compelled to agree with.
Pushing 80, Cronenberg proves he hasn’t missed a step in his absence, delivering a slow-burner he’s had brewing on the back-burner since 2003. Surprisingly though, this is a pretty bloodless affair for Toronto’s “Baron of Blood.” A few cuts here and there (with one pretty brutal execution towards the end), but this is a pretty tame watch for a film that sparked walk-outs at Cannes. Perhaps Viggo Mortensen getting a zipper sewn into his torso for easy access is probably something most viewers are expecting, but in a filmography that paved advancements in practical gore effects, this just feels run-of-the-mill. Literal props do have to go to Alexandra Anger and Monica Pavez for their impressive make-up effects, crafting some impressive nasty organs for the audience to gush over. Cronenberg’s on and off production designer, Carol Spier, returns, creating some mesmerizing bio-mechanical devices similar to her work in eXistenZ (Could they be in the same universe?). These devices move and gyrate in an almost hypnotic interpretive dance, showing where the filmmakers find beauty in this wasteland.
Cronenberg has always been one to have a family of recurring collaborators, something that may be noticeable for long time fans of the director. Howard Shore does of course return as the composer (having worked with Cronenberg since The Brood), orchestrating his first horror score since Silence of the Lambs. The score creates an eerie calmness that underlies the lack of emotions within the characters, before transitioning to a very appropriate synth score when the meatier scenes take center stage. Changes to the roster have been made though; as cinematographer Douglas Koch replaces Peter Suschitzky behind the camera, Christopher Donaldson replaces Ronald Sanders as editor, and Mayou Trikerioti replaces the late Denise Cronenberg as costume designer.
On the acting side, Viggo Mortensen is shock of all shocks, on his A-game, contently grinning through a frail appearance and sickly rasp. It’s probably one of the least physically demanding roles he’s done. Léa Seydoux is phenomenal as someone who takes great pride in her work, one who’s very quick to answer questions. Despite her partnership with Saul, you get the feeling Caprice sees herself as the real artist (being the surgeon and all). Scott Speedman gives an excellent performance where he emotes the most out of any character, someone with a “by any means agenda” that he’s way too eager to share. Speedman is definitely an underrated actor in the horror scene that deserves exploration past his Underworld roots. Finally, Kristen Stewart, in a role that feels smaller than it should have been, where she plays a member of the organ registry who fangirls over Mortensen’s Saul. It’s implied she does more, but she’s basically regulated to a stand-in for the Cronenberg fanbase. This is a shame because Stewart gives a great performance.
Crimes of the Future is a welcome new film, but not one you’d want to show a first-time viewer of Cronenberg’s filmography. A lot of themes of this film are definitely familiar ground for Cronenberg and that seems to be by design. Here, he’s dissecting his own career as someone who found art within the grotesque. But he either didn’t have the financial means to deliver, or wasn’t interested in making the message of the film finite. We are left with a film that is as frustrating as it is thought-provoking. It’s a very middle-of-the-road movie. It may not be this triumphant return the long-time fans were hoping for, but in line with the film’s message, humans and art are going to evolve whether we like it or not. Is this the end of the line, or just a new point in the metamorphosis of Cronenberg? We’ll just have to wait and see. Long live the new flesh.
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