With the ultra-wealthy elites continuing to line their pockets during some of the most financially strenuous times for most of us common folks, the subgenre of films that revolve around the spoiled rotten getting their comeuppance is one I’ll continue to support. Last year was a bountiful year, with films like The Menu and Triangle of Sadness quenching thirsts some of us didn’t know we had. Both brought a delightful mix of social commentary and suspense into the fold, all while employing a welcomed, even artful, degree of shock value.
Brandon Cronenberg’s Infinity Pool fits right in with that company. Him and his father, David, must’ve had a hell of a year themselves, comparing notes on each of their projects (the elder Cronenberg directed the nausea-inducing yet riveting Crimes of the Future, released months ahead of Brandon’s film) and mulling over body horror during the occasional family dinner, assuming they had an appetite in the first place.
Infinity Pool trips itself up after what is a bold and beautiful first half, defined by excellent visuals and a pulsating score. Where it falters is when it gets heady, purposefully proposing questions it can’t answer, nor does it seems like it wants to in the first place. Effective performances and strong aesthetics make it exceed the pitfalls of its plotting and general lack of cohesion, as it grows elusive in the final minutes.
Writer/director Cronenberg introduces us to James (Alexander Skarsgård) and Em (Cleopatra Coleman), a wealthy couple who are vacationing at an exclusive resort in the fictitious country of Li Tolqa. James is a failed author, and we can judge from their temperament and rapport with one another that their relationship is on the rocks. Enter Gabi (Mia Goth), the rare fan of James’ work, who invites them to spend time with her and her husband, Alban (Jalil Lespert). The two rent a car and head out into the badlands. On the way back home, James strikes and kills a pedestrian in the middle of the road.
The cops come and arrest James the next morning, which is when he learns that Li Tolqa’s penalty for killing someone, even accidentally, is execution. There is a way out, however, for a price. James can commission a cloned doppelganger of himself — one that is not merely identical, but harbors all his memories and full autonomy too — to be executed in his place. Because of this, the exorbitantly wealthy consider this country a place where they can operate on id, unrestrained and free of consequences, as another being will pay for their crimes and misdeeds. This is Cronenberg’s Punishments of the Future.
After witnessing James’ clone’s murder, Em flies home while he books another week to hang with Gabi and Alban and use the extended stay as an opportunity to plunge deeper into the bowels of Li Tolqa depravity.
Cronenberg hooks you with a moral conundrum as soon as the concept of a clone paying for the punishments of its creation are proposed. If James’ clone was just a shell of a human — a blank slate, incapable of feeling pain, guilt, and torment — the concept would’ve fallen apart. The fact that James’ copy is sentient, born for the purpose of dying, invites a plethora of moral ramifications that might prove everlasting, particularly as we watch the execution(s) unfold.
Such thought-provoking ideas pair well with cinematographer Karim Hussain’s visuals, which underscore backgrounds as opposed to foregrounds. There’s some intriguing manipulation at play here, where foreground colors (IE: clothing, cars) are muted and background colors (IE: skylines) appear saturated. An early dinner/double-date between the two couples highlights this, with the reds of the restaurant’s background practically pulsating while the characters appear as if they could blend into the background. Another early, opening montage has the camera spinning around the locale in which we’re dropped, basically sending us into a trance. Hussain’s photography is simultaneously playful and arresting.
One doesn’t have to squint to see what a tremendous year both Skarsgård and Goth have had as actors. Skarsgård commanded the screen in the underrated Northman, and Goth solidified herself as a mainstay in horror for the foreseeable future with consecutive performances in Ti West’s X and Pearl. Both adapt to Cronenberg’s trademark weirdness effectively, with Goth shining as her character, Gabi, gets progressively more unhinged as the film goes on. The sequence of her toting a gun while letting out a whiny, high-pitched cry to Skarsgård’s James should be remembered as much as her unblinking stare in Pearl.
The second half of Infinity Pool is plagued by ambiguity and a lack of concretion. It’s here when you realize that Cronenberg doesn’t solidify the lofty ideas he’s proposed. What would humans do if not for real, punitive consequences? Furthermore, if the negligible consequences prompted others to experience emotions not easily put out of memory, would you still be willing to carry out the actions in the first place? Infinity Pool starts to get high off its own supply of body horror and shock the further it goes, in part failing to make any statement last. You’re left with visuals, a couple of divine performances, but ultimately wondering what one more rewrite would do in its favor.
NOTE: As of this writing, Infinity Pool is available to rent on a variety of platforms.
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Mia Goth, Cleopatra Coleman, Jalil Lespert, and Caroline Boulton. Directed by: Brandon Cronenberg.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!