It is undeniable that David Cronenberg is a master of body horror. Just look at The Fly, Scanners, or the fact that an early episode of Rick and Morty used his name as a verb when it came to a mishap that turned everyone on Earth into amorphous mutants. It is further undeniable that apart from maybe Peter Jackson, there is no director better suited to getting a great performance out of Viggo Mortensen, given the excellent A History of Violence and Eastern Promises.
So why does the combination of the two, in the form of Crimes of the Future (sharing a title and some tangential thematic elements with his second feature film, but most decidedly not a remake), feel like a misfire? The pieces are mostly there, and the creepshow trailer certainly hinted at a monstrous return to form (further evidenced by a six-minute standing ovation when it debuted in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival), but somehow they just don’t fall into place.
At least, they didn’t fall into place in the way I think Cronenberg intended. Instead of giving audiences nightmare fuel with his deft touch, or disgusting them enough to walk out of the theatre in offense, the film often feels like it’ll eventually be held among the ranks of the better cult classics, with many of the elements devolving into “so bad it’s good” status. But even then, this isn’t a bad film. It’s a missed opportunity to be sure, but it’s not a failure. You can see the superlative elements throughout, including some thoughtful plotting and truly excellent practical makeup effects. Sadly – or perhaps delightfully – you can also see the strings just a bit too often, and the accidental comedy goes off the charts.
Things begin promisingly enough, with a young boy named Brecken (Sozos Sotiris) being murdered by his mother (Lihi Kornowski) after she witnesses him eating a plastic garbage bin. Note, I did not say he was eating from a bin, but eating the actual fucking bin! That’s some messed up shit right out of the gate, the sort of thing we all know and love about Cronenberg’s style. It’s a jarring and weird image that sets up a ton of great questions, not the least of which is how the boy was eating a trash can, why he was eating a trash can, and what this means for the overall world Cronenberg is building. There’s no true callback to this moment for another 40 minutes or so, but it properly lingers in the back of your head as you view the rest of the proceedings.
And once we jump into the main story, there is a ton of potential, though we can already see the start of just how chintzy things eventually become. Sleeping in what can only be described as a nest made of discarded scrotal tissue is Saul Tenser (a lot of the names here are quite literal), played by Mortensen. In this quasi-dystopian future, he is one of the few human beings still capable of feeling the sensation of pain, and it’s so intense that he requires this device to sleep, as hanging tendrils latch onto his appendages to leach the pain out of him. He similarly uses a device called a “Breakfaster,” a chair made from human bones that jostles him around to aid in digestion, in order to eat.
Joining him is Caprice, his partner in both love and work. She’s played by Léa Seydoux, who elevates the credibility of anything she’s in. The two of them are “performance artists” in the field of live surgery. In addition to being one of the only humans to experience pain, Tenser is able to spontaneously grow vestigial organs in his body. Using microscopy, Caprice tattoos the organs and then uses a modified autopsy bed to surgically remove them in front of an audience. This is seen as a high form of entertainment in this world, where people cut each other in the open as a form of sexual foreplay, because it is the only intense physical sensation they can feel.
All of this is textbook Cronenberg, but I have to say, these contraptions are just weird for the sake of being weird, and the set pieces themselves look like they wouldn’t be out of place in a Troma film from the 1980s. The bed and the breakfast chair look like spray painted foam rubber, and the visual of the autopsy bed opening up sections so people can see the surgery looks like an effect straight out of Lawnmower Man. It’s bad CGI mixed with entry-level compositing, and it feels like a cheap B-movie effect.
But in a campy way, it sort of works. This continues as the plot actually moves forward, as Tenser and Caprice meet with two government officials from the National Organ Registry (which nation we can’t be sure, as the movie is a joint production of Canada and Greece, and depending on the shot, signage can be in either English or Greek) named Wippet (Don McKeller), who acts like he’s on “whippets” and Timlin (Kristen Stewart), who is extremely timid until she gets extremely horny watching the surgery show. They’re all involved in one way or another – along with a detective named Cope played by Welket Bungué and two technicians played by Tanaya Beatty and Nadia Litz (named Berst and Router, again, super literal) – in an interwoven case investigating an underground separatist group led by Brecken’s father Lang (Scott Speedman), who thinks the boy’s abnormalities – as well as Tenser’s – might be a sign of the next step in human evolution.
All of these disparate elements lend themselves to cult movie enjoyment. Detective Cope interrogates Wippet and Timlin in a room where the wall clock noticeably never moves. Tenser is recruited into an “inner beauty” pageant if he’s willing to leave his next new organ inside his body. Lang kills people with candy bars. Neither Caprice, Router, nor Berst miss an opportunity to strip naked to test the durability of their various equipment. Artists have intentionally obtuse and pretentious conversations about how their low-key mutilation takes them to a higher plane of existence, including Timlin literally saying the line, “Surgery is the new sex.” Tenser dresses up like a ninja in public for no discernable reason, and Viggo Mortensen’s line deliveries feel like a combination of Christian Bale’s Batman and Rick Sanchez’s gag reflex. This is only outdone by Kristen Stewart whispering and enunciating every single line she says, to the point that the audience when I saw it was about one scene away from straight up Rocky Horror-esque call-and-response. Just replace “WHERE’S YOUR NECK?” with “SPEAK UP! WE CAN’T HEAR YOU!” It doesn’t help that most of her dialogue is comically bad. That said, put a blonde wig on Stewart’s head and have her speak with a slight British accent, and it’s the exact same performance that inexplicably got her an Oscar nomination for Spencer, so do with that what you will.
I’d say it’s all part of a grand joke, but there’s just enough earnestness in the film to make me think that it wasn’t. At minimum, I’m confused. While the set pieces and visual effects are laughable, the makeup is insanely great, even when it’s superfluous. The best example of this is a scene where a man has his eyes and mouth sewn shut, but he has dozens of ears all over his body, which he uses to hear and dance to music, an act that Tenser and other characters comment on as being completely performative, as the ears can’t possibly work. Similarly, Howard Shore’s score is some excellent genre music, with appropriate amounts of tuned down strings and horns. But it’s also overpowering. In that wonderfully deranged first scene alone, it telegraphs the terror in a way that almost ruins the moment. The surgery scenes are intriguing bits of scientific gore, but they’re undercut by instruments like the spreader that look like they were made from rat ribcages. The dialogue about humanity being forced to adapt to an environment it created is profound, until a silly line leaves the whole theatre laughing so hard that they no longer care what the point was.
And the most egregious thing of all is that the film simply fizzles out right when it finally seems to have sorted out all the various ideas. Once Cronenberg finally picks a direction, and after what are the only two truly disturbing scenes after the opening, the film just ends. From a plot structure standpoint, we’re only at the end of Act II, with the first major climax of the story, and yet, that’s it. I’d wonder if we were left to ponder the implications of everything we had just seen, but the ending is so abrupt that we don’t have the time to collect our thoughts and process things. There’s leaving the audience wanting more, and there’s just deciding to end things because you can’t figure out how to end them.
Despite all this, I as well as everyone in the theatre was absolutely entertained. I just don’t think the entertainment value that we got was what Cronenberg was aiming for. I’m sure there will be tons of analysis from the filmmaker’s die-hards about how it was all intentional and some grand statement about the artificiality of the Hollywood machine, or something similar. But for a man who thrives on viscera, the most visceral reaction Crimes of the Future elicits is, “Hahaha, fucking what?”
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Are you a fan of body horror, and if so, what are your favorites? Did Léa Seydoux’s nude scene raise this film’s score by an entire letter grade? Let me know!
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