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Crimes of the Future movie review: David Cronenberg’s delirious return to body horror isn’t as visceral as it needed to be

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Crimes of the Future movie review: Lacking the giddiness of some of his early work, David Cronenberg's return to body horror is too muted to truly register.

Léa Seydoux and Kristen Stewart in a still from Crimes of the Future, from David Cronenberg. (Photo: Neon)

If the truest sign of a great filmmaker is that they only ever make movies that nobody else could, then by that yardstick alone, David Cronenberg is one of the greatest out there. The Canadian master of body horror — a subgenre of scary movies in which flesh is sliced, bones are crushed, and eyes pulped — has emerged from a decade-long dip in dramatic waters to make a much-anticipated return to familiar territory with Crimes of the Future.

In typical Cronenberg fashion, it’s a dense film that invites conflicting interpretations. To some, it’ll play like a doomsday tale about humanity’s propensity for self-destruction; others might perceive it as a psychosexual fantasy about desire. But to me, Crimes of the Future is — at least on a purely thematic level — Cronenberg’s answer to Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman; a film about mortality that he couldn’t have made as a young man.

Set in a dystopian future where human bodies have developed the ability to resist physical pain and have become immune to viruses, Crimes of the Future has been erected on the foundation of a rather romantic notion: that even in this terrible, terribly future world, art has survived. Standing in for Cronenberg in this meta tale about an artist contemplating his legacy is his regular collaborator Viggo Mortensen, who plays a performance artist named Saul Tenser.

Unlike the majority of the world’s population, Saul feels constant pain. And not just because he’s supposed to be some kind of tortured artist. The mysterious evolutionary bump has given him the ability to generate new organs in his body. Saul’s act involves his partner Caprice (Lea Seydoux) performing live surgery on him in front of an audience, and in a final flourish, extracting the extra organ for everybody to see. These surgery scenes are filmed with a squirminess that is completely on-brand for Cronenberg, but maybe it’s the relative lack of blood or a unexpectedly conservative sound mix, they don’t quite have the visceral impact of the filmmaker’s previous attempts at unsettling the audience.

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The constant references to pain, and the sight of an artist repeatedly baring his insides for the world to see are, of course, a metaphor. I’m not entirely sure for what, though. Physical pain in Cronenberg’s films is essentially code for emotional pain. Caprice, for instance, reveals midway through the film that she used to be a trauma surgeon. So, it’s no coincidence that the relationship she has with Saul isn’t unlike that of a therapist and their patient.

Cronenberg’s fascination for the human body has often informed and inspired his art. But his protagonist in this film uses his body more literally. “Pain has a function,” one character defiantly declares in the film’s opening moments, suggesting that the inability to feel it has made people weaker. Because they no longer have to worry about the physical consequences of their actions, human beings are no longer vulnerable as they should be. And it certainly makes you wonder; if Saul wasn’t in constant pain, would he still be able to create his art?

Saul and Caprice’s paths cross frequently with a couple of bureaucrats played by Don McKellar and Kristen Stewart — both of whom are basically this world’s versions of duelling studio executives. Stewart is particularly memorable here as the younger paper-pusher infatuated with (and turned on by) Saul’s work; the actor now has so many interesting roles to her credit that it’s quite staggering to imagine that people still associate her with the Twilight films. Perhaps as surprising, one might say, as Mortensen’s sustained synonymity with the Lord of the Rings movies.

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In the span of one week, the actor will be seen in Crimes of the Future and Ron Howard’s sure-shot Oscar contender Thirteen Lives, exhibiting his range as a performer. His performance here, however, is too muted to be engaging. Beyond Saul’s obvious insecurities, it’s really quite a challenge to understand what’s going on in his mind. This is obviously intentional, but frustrating nonetheless. It’s Stewart, in fact, who is able to effortlessly tap into the fresh-out-of-college groupie energy of her character.

Cronenberg is nearly 80 now, and while Crimes of the Future has more directorial personality than 90% of the films being made these days, the film’s admittedly intriguing ideas are consistently buried under dense storytelling.

Crimes of the Future
Director – David Cronenberg
Cast – Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux, Kristen Stewart, Don McKellar
Rating – 2.5/5

First published on: 29-07-2022 at 04:55:33 pm
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