A man lies sleeping in his bed, tossing and turning. Well, “bed” doesn’t quite describe it: more like an organic cocoon cleaved in half, suspended from the ceiling by stringy, sinewy tentacles. The gent squirming around inside this pituitary gland-like pod is haggard but handsome, silver-maned, eyebrowless; if it weren’t for the matinee-idol jawline, you almost wouldn’t recognize that it’s Viggo Mortensen. “I think the bed needs new software,” he croaks to the female companion adjusting the rubbery extensions feeding into his hands. “It’s not anticipating my pain anymore.”
You may have no idea what is going on, but trust us — you know exactly where you’re at. It is less than five minutes into a movie “written and directed by David Cronenberg.” The fact they even had to put that credit onscreen at all feels like a mere formality.
Crimes of the Future isn’t just the first film from Canada’s favorite cinematic son (and a contender for the greatest living contemporary horror filmmaker) in eight years; it’s a return to the type of gooey, gristly genre-melt that made Cronenberg both a midnight-movie icon and an international sensation. Judging from the way this waking sci-fi nightmare doubles down on the difficulty factor, he’s also trying to make up for a lotta lost time in one fell swoop. Borrowing the title from his sophomore feature — a 1970 experimental film that offered a peek at the shape of things to come — this is neither a remake nor a sequel to that earlier work. But it definitely suggests a full-circle notion of Cronenberg once again digging around in his roots and seeing what sort of psychosexual chum he can extract from the fertile muck.
Mortensen’s Saul Tenzer is a big deal in what’s now an extremely popular past time: performance art mutilation. He’s renowned for growing his own oddball internal organs, which he and his partner, a former trauma surgeon named Caprice (Léa Seydoux), extract live for an adoring public. Pain has been evolved, or perhaps devolved, out of the human experience, except in dreams. People now get off on seeing mondo mutation, steel meeting tissue, fleshy destruction rebranded as a genetically superior, high-art geek show. “Surgery is the new sex!” exclaims Timlin — played by Kristen Stewart, channeling extreme fandom into a one-woman thirst symphony — an employee at the National Organ Registry who wants to join the act. (When she tries to seduce this postmodern primitive superstar, he demurs: “I’m not so great at the old sex.”)
There’s also a twitchy guy named Lang (Scott Speedman) lurking around their shows, who is armed with a proposition for Saul and Caprice. He wants them to perform a live autopsy on his dead son. If they do that, they run the risk of angering the “New Vice Unit” cops, who’s holding the murderer — the boy’s mom — and becoming outlaws. But they might also help move forward an agenda set by Lang’s mysterious underground movement and make them part of one small step for man, one giant evolutionary leap forward for mankind.
That’s the noirish engine thrumming beneath Crimes slick, viscous surface, and if you listen hard enough — or, as one supporting player in the movie does, literally cover your body with ears — you can detect the faint rumblings of an eco-thriller and a satirical swipe at today’s Celebrity Industrial Complex. Yet abandon all hope, ye who grasp for a plotline to hold on to here. The conversion of new cult members is not on the menu.
No, this is one for the hardcore Cronen-heads, a dense treatise aimed at those who already treat his more outré, boundary-obliterating works as gospel. It’s an opportunity to get Seydoux to purr lines like, “An organism needs organization…otherwise, it’s just designer cancer.” It’s an excuse to have Mortensen fed like a baby in a “chair” made of janky, swaying bones, a concoction that’s exactly one half H.R. Giger and one half Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. (The production design by Carol Spier and art direction by Dimitris Katsikis and Kimberly Zaharko, is exactly what you want in a Cronenberg film — from the haute sarcophagi Mortensen performs in to the spidery, skeletal scalpels Seydoux uses to penetrate her lover, courtesy of a conspicuously vaginal remote control. We weren’t kidding about that “surgery is the new sex” quote.) It’s the kind of swan dive into the cerebral, carnal, cracking-open of “civilized” society that Cronenberg has not made since 1999’s eXistenZ, in which he mined the Bronze Age of online gaming for musings about techno-paranoia and .
Crimes of the Future is, in reality, more of a spiritual sister film to that work than the one it shares its name with, down to the specific mix of sex, violence and playfulness, and a climax that doesn’t end the film so much as bring it to an abrupt halt, teetering on the precipice of either epiphany or basic comprehension. And if it’s not quite the 21st-century-schizoid-man equivalent of what that spirit-of-’99 thriller did for premillennial tension, it’s proof that some artists can keep finding fresh meat within decades-old preoccupations. At one point, a detective who’s rooting around for illegal happenings within the slice-and-splatter circuit, asks Tenzer what the deal is with all his “body art” stuff. “What I’m saying with that ‘body art’ stuff is that I don’t particularly like what’s happening with the body,” he replies. Sub in the word horror for art, and you have a director’s statement in a nutshell.
The words “return to form” will likely get thrown around a lot, but the veteran filmmaker never lost his chops or his way; he just began poking around in different corners, nudging his way into psychological spaces rather than batshit biological ones. It’s a return to “a” form. Yet it’s hard not to gape in future-shock, awe and sheer wonder at the way he’s so deftly pirouetted right back into a sticky, sickly subgenre everyone thought he’s “evolved” out of. This is what the work of a visionary filmmaker looks like. Forget the new flesh. Long live the old Cronenberg.