Crimes of the Future Returns Cronenberg to His Playful Body Horror Roots
Who are we? What makes us tick? Are we flesh? Are we more? Is there a connection between one’s physical attributes and the psychological perceptions of who we long – maybe even fear – to be? As the Earth evolves, as humanity continues to pollute and destroy, do we change along with it? If so, can these deviations from the reassuring norm be stopped? Should they be? Or do we just let things play out as they will and let evolution take its course?
I can’t say these are questions David Cronenberg is asking with his latest mind-bending assault on the senses, the crazy, borderline indescribable Crimes of the Future. I do know that those were only a small handful of the ones I was left pondering as I silently exited the theater.
Humanity is at a crossroads. The continued assault on the Earth’s resources and environment has caused the human body to evolve. It has begun to embrace this synthetic reality. In some cases, people are self-generating internal organs that are unique to each individual. Gifted performance artists have embraced this new reality, coming up with entre showcases revolving around their own self-mutilation and these inexplicable, some might even say grotesque, changes.
Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) is the best of this new breed of artists. Along with his beguiling partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux), he has crafted an entire showcase revolving around the removal of every new organ his body spontaneously produces. This has caught the eye of a new bureaucratic agency, the National Organ Registry, most notably the two officials running it, Wippet (Don McKellar) and Timlin (Kristen Stewart). They are both fascinated by Tenser, their growing obsession with his internal organs and his hypnotic performance art potentially against agency rules.
There are a lot of additional layers. Not everyone is who they appear to be. There’s a secretive detective (Welket Bungué) with ties to Tenser. Early on, a horrified mother (Lihi Kornowski) does the unthinkable, calling her ex-husband (Scott Speedman) to vindictively admit her crime before turning herself in to the police. A pair of mechanical organic bed, autopsy table, and adult highchair technicians (Nadia Litz, Tanaya Beatty) casually play with death as if they were outside in the playground skipping rope.
What do all these characters have to do with Tenser, Caprice, and their art? Sometimes the answers are obvious. In other moments, making heads or tails of their connection to the larger themes is next to impossible. Cronenberg filters all of them in and out of his gory box of blood-splattered delights with macabre relish, each person making a lasting impression, even if the greater meaning behind their actions isn’t always clear.
Mortensen and Seydoux are masterful. Their performances work in symbiotic cadence with one another. It’s as if each is always anticipating exactly what the other is going to do at any given moment. Discomfort, joy, fear, shock, awe, love; it’s all here. The pair deliver in ways that continually astonish, each bringing a unique physicality to their performance, yet still finding ways to relay exactly how much Tenser and Caprice rely upon one another from one second to the next.
The rest of the cast is also up to the challenge. Speedman is unexpectedly effective, especially during the film’s climactic act. Stewart is all breathy twitterpated indecision, her flighty pensiveness masking a sexually-charged resolve that’s disquieting. McKellar is an absolute joy, his jittery exuberance oddly infectious. As for Litz and Beatty, I honestly don’t have the first clue what the pair are doing here, but I do know I still loved every second of what they were delivering.
For all the film’s gore and stunning makeup effects, the most unsettling elements have nothing to do with the ripping apart of a person’s flesh to reveal what’s lying underneath the skin. Sometimes something as innocuous as a pillow hesitantly cradled in a mother’s shaking arms is enough to terrify, while the sight of a formerly confident man brought to tears by cruel injustice and malicious subterfuge can shred the viewer’s psyche into befuddled mush.
But this is Cronenberg. Nothing here should come as a surprise. From 1975’s Shivers through 1999’s eXistenZ, while the filmmaker is justifiably considered a giant of body horror cinema, that does not mean all of his works that fit into that genre only exist to splatter the screen with goo and squirt viscera on the faces of their characters. Far from it. While some are certainly more successful than others – 1986’s The Fly and 1988’s Dead Ringers are my personal favorites – each still searches for emotional truths that are as psychologically appalling as they are intimately heartfelt.
This remains the case here as well. Cronenberg is grappling with deeper truths, and while he cannot bring coherent shape or give cohesive form to all of them, his ambition to burrow into the nastier interiors of the human condition has never been more profoundly invasive. Crimes of the Future is a futuristically retro slice of body horror that left me speechless. It is a twisted descent into madness, refusing to coddle its audience or offer up a single happy ending. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Film Rating: 3½ (out of 4)