‘Infinity Pool’ Review: A Terrifying, Neon-Lit Nightmare
Feb 5, 2023
There’s crazy, there’s batshit crazy, and then there’s Brandon Cronenberg’s definition of crazy. It’s a crazy that’s impossible to contain and even more impossible to label: a mind-bending neon-lit nightmare bursting at the seams with perverse imagery, an abrasive embrace of the grotesque, and a ravishing explosion of seduction and power. “Infinity Pool,” Cronenberg’s widely-anticipated third feature, is all these things and more — consistently defying expectations while relaying a complex panoply of sex, satire, sadism, and class warfare that is at once unnerving and undiluted.
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If his past work — especially “Possessor” — is any proof, Cronenberg has established himself as a filmmaker with a genuine knack for saturating his films with a distinct brand of physical uneasiness. That is to say, his films feel simultaneously freeing and suffocating — as if intent on burying viewers in the deep holes they dig for humanity. But as “Infinity Pool” illustrates, what sets Cronenberg apart from his contemporaries who attempt a similar genre of queasy-icky horror is that the writer-director displays a natural artistic inclination toward blood and guts. It’s why even when his films insist on being provocative, they never end up gimmicky.
An effective entrant to the trendy eat-the-rich horror sub-genre, “Infinity Pool” starts where “The White Lotus” can’t even imagine treading. Set on a fictional island somewhere in Eastern Europe, the film follows James Foster (Alexander Skarsgård), an author whose first novel was a flop, leaving him with a six-year-long writer’s block. So, looking for inspiration, he’s come on a vacation at a luxury resort with Em (Cleopatra Coleman), his wealthy publishing heiress wife. As a couple, James and Em are vacuous and distant enough to suggest adherence to the kind of listless lifestyle that’s a reality for most people who come from money.
Take, for instance, their choice of holiday location: the resort they’re staying at resembles a lavish, walled city with a nightclub and a Chinese restaurant stacked inside the premises. Outside the gates of this artificial paradise, however, spells danger — we’re told that it boasts a high crime rate and a violent justice system habituated to mete out the death penalty. Guests are ordered to stay on the property and never step out.
James and Em aren’t the kinds of tourists who would, either — until they bump into two others: the carefree Gabi (Mia Goth) and her husband Alban (Jalil Lespert), who easily persuade the couple to sneak out for a risky afternoon excursion to a secluded beach in a borrowed car. There’s no denying that James also starts to enjoy the attention that Gabi, simultaneously suggestive and coy, showers on him — when they first meet, she directly appeals to his ego, introducing herself as his biggest fan, adding that she can’t wait to read his new book. You can tell that James is equally turned on by the sexual tension between Gabi and him. You can also tell that it’s a pressure cooker waiting to implode.
After a long day of lazing, sunbathing, and a particularly shocking carnal interlude (you have to see the scene to believe it), they decide to call it a day. But things go south on their way back: on a dark road, James, who is behind the wheel, hits a local, killing him instantly. When the four of them are taken into police custody, James is naturally held responsible for the crime. He’s offered two options: the death penalty and a questionable get-out-of-jail card. To access it, he must be willing to pay a hefty sum to clone himself and watch his doppelgänger be mercilessly executed.
James signs on the dotted paper and watches his innocent doppelgänger meet a bloody death. His wife is made to watch as well, and while she squeals and looks away in horror, James can’t help but be turned on at the prospect of nothing being out of bounds if he can afford to pay the financial repercussions. That, in turn, sets off a chain of events in which James finds himself drawn to Gabi and a group of rich, hedonistic vacationers who regularly employ this loophole to their recreational advantage.
The casting is ingenious, informing the film’s marathon of sexy violence. Skarsgård, an actor always up for a challenge, physically transforms into an ideal vessel for this story about fragile ego and outsized personality. He plays James as a tightly wound, emasculated man so enthralled by the idea of wielding any kind of power that he’s willing to degrade himself to any level. Initially, the sudden rush of power transforms James into the dominating man he always wanted to be. But as the plot unravels and he realizes there’s no coming back, we see Skarsgård settle himself perpetually on the brink of a breakdown or a tantrum as if demanding to be rescued from himself.
Indeed, it helps that the actor’s scene partner is Goth, an actress who has, in the last year, demonstrated the extent of her range, generating more jaw-dropping moments than most actors can conjure up in a lifetime. “Infinity Pool” is stacked to the brim with evidence of her range. If possible, Goth outdoes her turn in “Pearl,” importing a deranged, feral-like quality to Gabi, turning her into an enigmatic, intimidating presence. That’s most visible in a later scene in which Gabi screams at James, admonishing him like an errant child and mercilessly pushing him to the breaking point while suggestively resting on top of a car.
If it feels like the character-driven, atmospheric “Infinity Pool” has very little plot going for itself save for the cruel things that keep happening to the characters, that is by design. Cronenberg doesn’t seem interested in limiting himself to a story; instead, he trains his gaze on pushing the boundaries of a sensory body-horror experience, experimenting with style and form with a boisterous energy. One of the film’s undeniable highlights is Cronenberg’s singular vision: he excels at making bloodshed look like a thing of beauty, breathlessly blending the disturbing and the gorgeous to construct unforgettable hallucinatory sequences (working in tandem with his regular collaborator Karim Hussain).
It seems redundant to describe or even explain the numerous mind-boggling sonic and visual gambles that Cronenberg utilizes to throw “Infinity Pool” into an utterly unhinged territory. That’s hardly the point. This is a film made up of multiple setpieces that thrive on unpredictable escalations and the audience’s collective shock. This is a film that is alluring in its intensity, sensational in its commitment to examining the ugliness of society, and horrifying in its emotional detachment. And it still manages to be a darkly comic indictment of constant, cruel tension between the upper class and the working class.
By now, it’s become somewhat of a cliche to make a case for a film by labeling it as original. Still, I’d go on a limb to say that “Infinity Pool” is unlike anything you’ve ever encountered, not just in scope but also in resolution. Why do we watch movies? Is it to be one step ahead at all times or to agree to cede control? “Infinity Pool” is the kind of film that reminds you that sometimes, the best thing a filmmaker can do is take you to places you would never dream of heading without apologizing for any of it. [A-]
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