Brandon Cronenberg's 'Infinity Pool' Offers Sun, Sand and Psychedelic Body Horror | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Brandon Cronenberg's 'Infinity Pool' Offers Sun, Sand and Psychedelic Body Horror


Published February 1, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated February 1, 2023 at 10:10 a.m.

Skarsgård and Goth play rich tourists sampling violent delights in the latest trancey horror film from Brandon Cronenberg. - COURTESY OF NEON
  • Courtesy Of Neon
  • Skarsgård and Goth play rich tourists sampling violent delights in the latest trancey horror film from Brandon Cronenberg.

This winter has been so dismal. A movie set at a high-end resort sounds like the perfect antidote. Even the title, Infinity Pool (in theaters), evokes the sumptuous endlessness of lazy days spent sunning oneself beside — wait, what's that again? This is a horror movie that pushes the limits of the R rating? Directed by Brandon Cronenberg, son of Canadian auteur David Cronenberg, who seems determined to produce surreal visions even more disturbing than his dad's?

If none of that appeals, you could just rewatch "The White Lotus." But, personally, I'm always up for tagging along on a Cronenberg vacation.

The deal

At a gated seaside resort in the fictional country of La Tolqa (played by Croatia and Hungary), James (Alexander Skarsgård) and Em (Cleopatra Coleman) are hoping that a vacation will revive their marriage. He's a novelist who's produced exactly one failed book; she's the daughter of a publishing mogul who is supporting him in style.

Then fellow guest Gabi (Mia Goth) vamps her way into James' life. Her husband (Jalil Lespert) doesn't seem to mind that she's obviously angling to seduce the writer, and the two couples venture outside the resort for a drive in the countryside.

The outing ends in a hit-and-run that puts James in the crosshairs of the dreaded La Tolqa justice system. The country metes out the death penalty for even minor transgressions, but tourists get the option of buying their way out. There's just one catch: They have to watch an exact double of themselves die.

Will you like it?

When will the men in horror movies ever learn? If Mia Goth prances her way up to you, rocking retro fashions and riding the line between ingenue and temptress, run the other way. Ever since A Cure for Wellness, the actor has been carving out her status as a scream queen with a specialty in guiding dopey leading men straight into the abyss. She does it with style, and she lets the audience in on the joke — namely, that men refuse to believe anyone so sweet and fresh-faced could be their undoing.

That's certainly true of the desperately insecure James in Infinity Pool; Gabi's praise of his book soon has him following her around like a puppy. She draws him into a depraved game with her clique of friends in which the stakes are his very sense of self.

Infinity Pool does a better job of selling its central concept than did Cronenberg's previous two features, which too often relied on trippy imagery to cover up a weakness of plot and characterization. The premise doesn't make much sense — it hinges on the impoverished nation of La Tolqa having technology unknown anywhere else — but once we've suspended our disbelief, the consequences are believable enough. Eager to squeeze money from the tourists, the natives empower them to follow their worst impulses, and the rich demonstrate that there's no depth they're not willing to explore.

Like The Menu, Infinity Pool combines horror with satirical class commentary, but it doesn't give us the satisfaction of seeing an underdog win. As in Cronenberg's other films, an underwritten script leaves us feeling disconnected from the characters. Our protagonist, James, is so passive and easily led that he feels more like a placeholder. Em might as well be a prop; after a few tart rejoinders, she disappears. Only Gabi has any real agency, and she's a force of pure, gleeful perversion.

With main characters no more likable than those of the Hostel series, Infinity Pool might be easy to dismiss if it weren't such a stunning fever dream of a movie. From its first scenes, desaturated colors and vertiginous angles make everything seem treacherously unreal. Jarringly extreme close-ups contrast with scenes that play with optical illusion. An out-of-focus detective silhouetted against a window looks disturbingly inhuman, for instance, emphasizing how other the natives appear to the tourists. Later on, the film goes full-on psychedelic for a few scenes, including a drug-fueled orgy featuring a trompe l'oeil kaleidoscope of body parts. (Viewers with photosensitivity should know that those scenes also feature strobing lights.)

A stronger screenplay might have found something more substantial to say about the dilemmas of the masculine ego that Cronenberg seems to want James' plight to embody. The writer-director makes a wise choice, however, when he has one of his characters immediately acknowledge and dismiss the overarching philosophical questions posed by the technology — how do I know I'm actually watching my double die? What if I am the double?

Those questions are so Blade Runner, so 20th century. Living in a world of AI and deepfakes, these affluent characters couldn't care less whether they're themselves or clones implanted with their memories. The important thing is that they still have access to their bank accounts.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Infinity Pool"