23 February 2013; DCA
An intriguingly insidious concoction of sci-fi, thriller and horror, Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral exudes discomfort from its first extreme close-up of a hypodermic needle to its last. The film’s disturbingly sterile production design and stark technical details render it worthy of much attention, especially considering its status as a debut feature. However, the real jewel in the crown is Caleb Landry Jone’s performance as the cadaverous Syd March, an employee of the celebrity-virus-harvesting practice, The Lucas Clinic.
Situated in a modern world uncomfortably close to our own, The Lucas Clinic accommodates those plunging the new lows of celebrity fanaticism; namely, those with celebrity bio-fetishes. March collects blood samples from indisposed celebrities and takes them back to the clinic, where the viruses are incubated and then sold to willing “hosts”. They are administered hypodermically, giving the hosts a sense of, as the clinic’s founder contentiously suggests, “biological communion” with their chosen celebrities. Even after recovery, the viruses live dormant in their bodies, thus resulting in the hosts’ gastronomic dependence on biologically constructed celebrity muscle. In one of the film’s more disturbing sequences, we even see a congregation of junkies queuing for buy-one-get-one-free celebrity steaks outside a black-market butcher’s shop.
March, is in on this racket too, illegally smuggling viruses out of the clinic by self-administering them and then incubating them at his own apartment, and it is within his apartment that the film’s production design really comes to life. A migrainous fixation on the colour white enhances the film’s visual sterility, creating a bleak juxtaposition with March’s ailing day-to-day condition as a virus vessel. Even the outside world seems afflicted with some sort of malaise, captured by the two startling “pillow shots” of an overcast sky both utterly resemble close-ups of human skin. The sound design, in particular the absence of sound,, is notable, with much of the film played out in a painful silence occasionally punctuated with intense atonal crescendos of what can only be described as cacophonous noise.
Reflecting March’s condition, the film itself gradually deteriorates into a fluorescent and bloody hallucination as it is revealed he has self-administered a fatal virus, one in fact designed to kill. As March delves deeper into the conspiracy surrounding his situation as an infected virus-vessel, Landry Jones’s performance becomes positively expressionistic in its exaggeration, and yet absolutely complementing the tone of the film’s descent. Even the camerawork reflects a sense of debasement within the narrative; that the camera constantly tracks characters from a safe distance behind generates a feeling that the viewer should not be watching what is unfolding. Yet perhaps more overt still is Cronenberg’s unconventional method of filming characters in dialogue at 90° angles, thus generating a sense of awkwardness which again works perfectly in the film’s context.
Ultimately concluding in a way that is reminiscent of the work of David Lynch, and perhaps much influenced by Kubrick (Malcolm McDowell even makes a somewhat nostalgic appearance), Antiviral is infected with many of the traits one would expect from the son of David Cronenberg, all of which helps the film get under one’s skin and remain there for an uncomfortably long time. For a debut feature, it certainly affirms the competence of a director whose future work deserves keen yet also somewhat cautious anticipation.