The rich, they are not like you and me. They treat the world as their oyster and, except for their fellow modern-day aristocrats, its occupants as their servants and playthings. They summer in private estates or swank five-star hotels, spending the gross national product of a small nation on vacations. They have a weakness for not only cloning themselves when they run afoul of little things like manslaughter laws — it turns out some countries offer this perk if you’ve got six figures to spend on it; be sure to check with your local embassy! — and letting their doubles take the fall. Or, should they be especially bored, paying for endless doppelgangers that can be used for target practice, meat puppets or way, way worse activities. Welcome to late capitalism, ad infinitum.
A strong contender for the most surreal slab of resort-horror to date — not to mention the sperm-and-blood-splattered crown jewel of Sundance’s Midnight sidebar — Infinity pool takes that burgeoning subgenre of eat-the-rich movies to some beautifully batshit places. The third film by Brandon Cronenberg is also the first to suggest that his knack for inspiring unease is genuinely artistic and not just genetic, even if outrunning the shadow of a famous name is a zero-sum game. Yes, you can certainly see the man who once made Shivers applauding this mix of sex, violence, science, class warfare and crossed lines. Yet this White Lotus dosed with Orange Sunshine is laced with a rage, an edge and a warped satirical sensibility that feels unique, and uniquely unnerving enough to kill talk of family coattails. Anyone who thinks a nepo baby made this is out of their fucking minds.
Privilege oozes from James Foster (Alexander Skarsgard), along with a sense of ennui and despair. His first novel made him a momentary literary sensation; six years later, his lack of a proper follow-up has turned him into just another listless rich guy. The fact that he and his wife, Em (Cleopatra Coleman), are staying in a posh getaway, complete with white sandy beaches and gajillion-thread-count sheets, is attributed to him needing inspiration. Really, they’re just tourists with money in an unnamed Eastern European country, who barely seem to be enjoying their status quo with a view.
Still, some odd things are happening on the periphery. A rogue local on a three-wheeler tears through the private guest area, wreaking havoc. The house band is celebrating a cultural holiday by donning traditional folk masks that resemble contorted, straight-outta-Francis-Bacon visages. When James is approached by another guest, a young British woman named Gabi (Mia Goth), his ego gets a much-needed boost. She simply loved his book, and can’t wait to read the new one. The look in her eyes suggests something a little more carnal than more literary admiration as well.
Gabi and her French husband, Alban (Jalil Lespert), invite the couple to dinner. The next morning, the four of them borrow a car and, defying the resort rules that visitors must stay on the property, take off for an excursion. After a long afternoon of day drinking and Gabi “relieving” James of bodily fluids behind a tree (this is the first indication of why the film’s NC-17 rating is well-earned; trust us, there will be plenty more examples), the the quartet drive back. On a dark back road, they hit a local. James is behind the wheel. Everyone speeds off back to the hotel. Don’t worry, Gabi and Alban say. We’ll handle this. Cue the cops showing up in the early AM, asking questions and casting an accusatory eye at the ugly Americans.
Cronenberg has already given us a sideways view of the push-pull tension between one-percenter tourists and wage-slave hospitality workers, as well as the sense of dislocation and disorientation of strangers in a strange yet pampering land. Now he tilts the perspective even further. Detained by the local police, James and Em are told by the precinct commander (Thomas Kretschmann) about the mandatory death-penalty sentencing and optional cloning plan, etc. After going through an odd procedure involving weird mouthpieces and red rubber sheets, James 2.0 gets knifed in the gut. They’re free to leave the country, except James 1.0 fakes losing his passport. He decides to stick around the hotel while his wife goes back to the States, at which point Gabi introduces him to a cabal of rich folks who take recreational advantage of this get-out-of-jail-free perk on the regular. What could be more hedonistic than being in an invite-only thrill-kill cult?
It’s around this point that Brandon Cronenberg both reminds you of his lineage (the cloning process is “like a new skin working itself into place,” practically inviting a new-flesh namedrop) and transcends it. Kidnappings, house invasions, murders, mind-expanding drugs, orgies involving exponentially growing nipples and male genitalia sprouting forth from female genitalia — did we mention this is rated NC-17? There are images here that defy description and others in which merely trying to describe them inspire the forcible launching of one’s lunch. So often, you can feel filmmakers straining themselves to come up with more extreme ways of shocking and awing you. With this writer-director, you get the sensation that such hallucinogenic, nerve-scrambling sensationalism comes naturally. You wouldn’t say that his agent provocateur touch is subtle. But it ice expert.
As for the performances, Skarsgard shows a knack for switching between alpha and beta male personae at a moment’s notice, and Goth makes an even stronger post-Pearl case for her being the single most interesting actor working in genre movies at the moment. The way she lets her mask of super-fandom slip off, only to reveal someone unhinged and sociopathic — another perk of the ultra-rich — is exhilarating. And to hear her scream “People. Of. The. BUS!” when Gabi and her pack of predators are tracking their prey on an airport shuttle, in a posh British accent fueled with “By these swans!” levels of volume and madness, is a thing of beauty.
That element may be a rarity in Infinity pool; it’s a movie that doubles (and triples, and quadruples) down on its ugliness. Yet it has picked its targets well. The rich may get away with murder, and worse. But they can end up luxury-furnishing their own permanent lost-weekend in hell. To paraphrase a wise man regarding another plush vacation spot, you can check out any time you like. But cross that line, and you can never, ever leave.