Sometimes it’s easy to spot the discipline a moviemaker has come from. Some are simple storytellers with writing backgrounds and little real interest in mood-setting except what the words on the page bring – think of the films of Kevin Smith or David Mamet, where the script is fairly sacred.
And some artists are from the visual arts of design, photography or cinematography, like Tom Ford made obvious in ”A Single Man”. Ford didn’t forget to include a story – albeit a simple one – to go with his visual style, but plenty of other directors are so in love with the design and composition of the frame, narrative is a detail they’re only to happy to leave out.
”Antiviral” looks great, and has a very strong concept and story to go with it. It’s from writer/director Brandon Cronenberg, whose more famous father spent most of his career similarly enamoured with the limits and weaknesses of human flesh, and depicts a stark and striking world of the near future, every scene a work of minimalist art, all straight-lined black and white, interrupted every now and then by an angry, ill-shaped splash of blood. Even without such a solid sense of its own style (it borders on an excess at times until you realise each visually-arresting set and location makes sense) it’s a great idea.
It seems to be a few decades into the future and biotechnology has taken the love of celebrity culture to insane new heights. When a beloved and famous figure such as bombshell Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon) gets sick – anything from a common cold to a life-threatening disease, they’ll sell a sample of it to any number of high end clinics in exclusive licensing deals, clinics who then offer to infect customers in turn.
It’s sick, gross and nearly unimaginable until you realise it might only be a few steps away from obsessively seeking the same shoes you saw Kim wearing at a Vegas party in a tabloid. Want her cold too, made to order? Like the name Kardashian, Hilton etc, a crucial detail of Antiviral is that it never says what the famous actually do for a living – they’re just celebrities for their own sake.
Syd is a technician who works for the high-end Lucas Clinic, who has an exclusive over Hannah’s bugs. Played brilliantly by Caleb Landry Jones, Syd is a soft-spoken guy with a sense of menace, an old soul trapped in a perpetually sick body. The reason is because as Syd samples a disease to sell at work, he sneaks a sample out by injecting himself with it, taking it home to synthesise on his own equipment and sell on the black market.
But Syd goes too far when he infects himself with what they think is Hannah’s latest cold, but instead turns out to be a killer virus her entourage are scrambling to cure. Worse still, they think someone targeted her with it deliberately. Syd has to find his way inside her protective universe fast so he can share the cure if they find it, getting weaker and sicker by the hour.
Not every aspect of the movie is altogether clear. There’s a motif about how the machine the technicians use to isolate the viruses assign a facial image of the virus itself, a discombobulated visage like those twirled-up faces from the photos in The Ring.
It’s also not always obvious who the secondary characters are, like Syd’s black market distributor and the reseller he’s connected to who shows up somewhere unexpected later on.
It’s also – like the best of David Cronenberg’s films – a little gross at times, and some might find the meandering pace a little bit slow. But the tones, colours, shapes and sense of movement are all rock solid and Cronenberg is very assured about his vision. With a unique sci-fi angle, ”Antiviral” might be one of those films that takes on more cachet the older it gets.