Counterprogramming was the name of the game this past weekend and it’s hard to get further away from the summer blockbuster than the latest film by David Cronenberg. Crimes of the Future revisits and reimagines his original 1970 work of the same name, putting the most visceral elements of that idea front and center for all to see.
In the future, the world and its people are undergoing rapid biological changes. The physiology of physical pain has all but vanished and mutilation is the new frontier. As one character bluntly states, “surgery is the new sex!” A duo of Avante-Garde performance artists pushes the envelope by performing live extractions of newly grown foreign organs. As they try to stay relative in the competitive performance art scene, they meet the leader of an evolutionary-revolutionist movement that wants the tandem to autopsy his son at one of their performances. Both sides have their reasons, but there’s a lot more at stake than art.
Cronenberg is always looking to push the envelope in some way and, in this instance, it was the eroticism of lacerations and dissection. Oddly enough, all those stories about people walking out in the first few minutes don’t have anything to do with those depictions. There is a lot of unnecessary performative theatrics with walkouts. If you are a regular person and you don’t want to spend your time on the film, so be it. It’s your life, spend your time however you want. But if you’re a critic and celebrate walking out of a film, wearing it like a badge of honor, you shouldn’t be covering movies. That said, I could see how this movie would make you uneasy, uncomfortable, and possibly physically ill if you don’t have a strong stomach.
One thing I always love about Cronenberg is that his vision of the future is so shitty. It’s a weird thing to like, but at least he’s consistent and it gives his film a distinct visual fingerprint. In this film, that’s accomplished with a lot of underground environments and rundown buildings, but it’s evident in the costuming by Mayou Trikerioti and the specialty props. The future tech in this case is designed to look somewhat bio-organic and alien in origin, which may even be the case but the film’s story never gets that far. It’s just an interesting dichotomy to have a future where body modification and surgery have become over-the-counter experiences, yet the tech looks janky and ancient.
Beyond the realm of the superficial, the film itself isn’t about jarring practical effects, viscera, or gore. It’s a story about the intersection of human physiology and tech, and what responsibility (if any) humanity has to the environment in the face of increasing non-organic encroachment. It’s a theme that Cronenberg has explored in some of his other works (The Fly, Existenz) but it feels more reflective of the current world this time…less abstract. It seems to be a commentary on global warming or, at the very least, humanity’s propensity for waste in the name of profit. Then again, there is very little in the way of exposition but I think I read between the lines correctly.
It helps to have some strong performers telling your story and that’s absolutely the case here. Viggo Mortensen is exceptional. His performance captures a certain type of physicality that enriches the mystique of Saul Tenser. He’s always a good actor, but what he did with this was very impressive and measured. Léa Seydoux is starting to rack up quite a nice resume over the last couple of years and she’s a great contrast to Mortensen’s quiet intensity. She brings a lot of color and vulnerability to a character who exists within a world with very little of either.
The primary supporting roles are also bundled in something of an odd couple. Kristen Stewart was coming off a career-defining performance in Spencer and she delivered with another great turn here ss the buttoned-down bureaucrat Timlin. She finds the space between being duty-bound and inexplicably drawn to the kind of vice that she’s supposed to regulate. My favorite performance/character goes to Don McKellar as Wippet, Timlin’s boss in the organ registry division. Despite his position, he’s a fan of Tenser’s “art” and wants to be amazed. It was very much in the tone of Sam Waterson’s Sol in Grace and Frankie, so McKellar brings some much-needed joy and levity to (again) a cinematic world that lacks both.
Scott Speedman gives a nice turn and the revolutionary leader, Lang Dotrice. He’s a bit manic and his behavior mimics that of an addict to a degree, but his addiction isn’t a designer drug. I won’t say anything more, but I am happy to see Speedman getting these kinds of opportunities. Among a number of strong performances, the unsung hero just might be Lihi Kornowski. Her character demands the heaviest emotional burden of the cast and it’s some very tricky waters to navigate, but she owns that space. I have to consider her for Breakout Performance.
This is a tricky film and I wasn’t quite sure how to feel when it was over. Cronenberg was clearly aware of what he was doing because he made sure to include a dark sense of humor to help lighten the load. I wouldn’t describe this as a horror film, despite it being dark. It’s not scary despite some effective horror elements, it’s more of a dark sci-fi thriller/drama. Take that for what it is, but I ultimately appreciated what the film was going for.
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