Starring Caleb Landry Jones, Sarah Gadon. Written and directed by Brandon Cronenberg. STC. 108 min. Opens Oct. 12.
Ever since the unwitting protagonist of the 1950 noir thriller D.O.A. raced to find the antidote of the toxin that a stranger slipped into his bloodstream, filmmakers and audiences have found something compelling about heroes who are literally dying before their eyes. Yet for all the unlucky souls who’ve come before him, the figure at the centre of Brandon Cronenberg’s feature debut sets a new standard when it comes to desperation and bodily decay.
Set in an alternate society in which celebrity-obsessed fans can achieve “biological communion” with their favourite stars by acquiring their illnesses, Antiviral stars Caleb Landry Jones as Syd, a virus salesman at a high-end clinic who secretly peddles his wares on the black market. When Syd acquires the bug that may have killed a luminous celeb played by Sarah Gadon, he draws the attention of a series of competing interests. Yet his efforts to evade them are compromised by his deteriorating condition, which is most strongly indicated by Syd’s tendency to leave bloodstains on the movie’s many pristine white sets.
As a grim and gruesome slice of sci-fi horror, Cronenberg’s debut feature invites comparisons with the works of his famous father, David. Besides the use of Toronto and Hamilton locations, familiar elements range from its thematic preoccupations with weird science to the Videodrome–like conspiracy plot that emerges in the movie’s later stages. Though the younger Cronenberg’s relative inexperience is clear from Antiviral’s occasional lapses into inertia and incoherence, his movie greatly benefits from
his willingness to follow the premise to its most grotesque extremes. Jones’s haunting performance as the ailing Syd gives a further sense of physicality to this supremely icky vision of bodies under duress.