With INFINITY POOL Brandon Cronenberg continues his father’s great tradition of unsettling images and quasi-familiar realities. He diverges in that, for all the normalization of the disquieting, in that he fails to evince the same undertone impish glee at the macabre so evident in even the elder Mr. Cronenberg’s darkest works. Still, he has a fine sense of taking societal norms and extrapolating them out into territory that is just the other side of too ridiculous to be taken seriously. As in, just close enough to make us all uncomfortable.
The societal norms at work here are revealed in all their exploitative glory of first-world vacationers in an impoverished country taking advantage of what money can buy. An American couple, James and Em (Alexander Skarsgård and Cleopatra Coleman) with underlying marital issues are vacationing at a luxury resort in a fictional Mittel-European country. The resort is posh, and the fence around it is topped with razor wire to keep the guests away from the locals, who are poor and disgruntled. At least that’s the explanation that British-born Gabi (Mia Goth) gives to James after he witnesses a protest on motorcycle by a local who has snuck in. Gabi, an effusively adoring fan of James’ one novel, strikes up a conversation with James, gushing over his genius and wondering why there’s been no second novel in the last six years. In the process, she convinces him to join her and her Swiss husband, Alban (Jalil Lespert), for dinner at a Chinese restaurant in the Potemkin village adjacent to the resort (and within the ci-mentioned fence). James forgets his mocking of such a restaurant, and such a village, to his wife only minutes before and accepts with delight. He’s almost as delighted to accept their invitation to venture outside the protection of the resort in a rented car for a picnic the following day in the wilds, as it were. “What could go wrong?” James asks Em, in what is, of course, the sort of famous last words with which the horror genre is replete. It almost qualifies, though, as an impish nod to Cronenberg pêre.
The scenery is spectacular, as promised, but menace rears its ugly head when Alban begins to make cannibal jokes that are a little too specific in their details. This is followed by an inappropriate advance by Gabi that James is unable (or unwilling) to deflect, the result of which Cronenberg reveals as it falls to the earth. The general air of trepidation is replaced by something more direct on the ride home, when falling prey to the darkness and the failing headlights of the rental car, James is involved in an accident with a local. Gabi urges them to flee rather than face the rough justice that would be meted out to them by the local police. James and Em resist, their ethical sense trumping their fear, until Gabi makes a claim that pushes the dial of their moral compass into the murky part of said dial where terror, the survival instinct, and adrenalin kick in.
Naturally, things do not go smoothly for James and Em, and the rest of the film examines James’ slow, inexorable slide into amorality. He’s abetted by the local constabulary’s grudging acceptance of the necessity of the tourist trade to keep the country financially afloat, and a band of regular resort guests who play a sort of chicken with who James thinks he is. The stakes become both higher, and of less consequence, in this foreign place full of strangers and even stranger rules as James is coerced into crimes he doesn’t think he wants any part of, only to find that each step towards the abyss becomes easier to take and is navigated with fewer regrets.
And then things get really weird. Beyond the local festival masks that are the opposite of charming (available at the resort gift shop) and the (religiously recognized) drug-infused orgies with strobe lights and cool lighting.
Cronenberg’s dissection of the psychology at work in all his characters provides a rigorously precise subtext to the increasingly vicious action on the screen. For his part, Skarsgård seamlessly makes the transition from being a good, if ineffectual, person to one who can watch a blood-spurting execution while cracking jokes. He is Cronenberg’s blank canvass on which the failings of humanity can be writ large, making us flinch with each transgression and refusing to let us become inured by upping the ante with twists that surprise more than shock in the context of the story. As for Cronenberg, is palpably enamored of the milieu he has dreamed up, and this, perhaps, is why the film feels flabby in places.
The first words we hear in INFINITY POOL concern being able to tell if someone is asleep or awake. By the end of the film, those concepts will have been expanded as scenery demonstrates with deliberate camera work that up is down, and sideways is a fluid state. Whether what happens to James is real or not, it is true in a way that finds its discordant truth about our sense of identity, in the temptations of transgression, and the perils of ennui. And the willingness to kill one’s soul in order to feel anything. Not for the faint of heart, it uses its unapologetic shock value to excellent advantage in making it savage points about humankind’s capacity for savagery.