The Freaky Stuff: David Cronenberg’s “Crimes of the Future”
“People took such awful chances with chemicals and their bodies because they wanted the quality of their lives to improve. They lived in ugly places where there were only ugly things to do. They didn’t own doodley-squat, so they couldn’t improve their surroundings. so they did their best to make their insides beautiful instead.”
—Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions
“You’ll forgive me if I don’t stay around to watch,” Leslie Carlson’s sinister eyeglasses salesman says to James Woods in Videodrome (1983). “I just can’t cope with the freaky stuff.” It’s the freaky stuff that fascinates David Cronenberg; his films are pervaded by a cruel dreaminess, grounded in a mean reality that resembles our own but which is governed by a grisly kind of logic, the mingling and the mangling of the corporeal and the cerebral, films that question the limits of the human body and all the strange stuff that can happen to it. For Cronenberg, the body is disgusting and ridiculous and yet also beautiful (“Certainly you’ve heard of inner beauty,” Jeremy Iron’s OBGYN tells Geneviève Bujold in Dead Ringers). It can, for example, develop a vaginal slit in the stomach, perfect for storing Betamax cassettes and guns and grenades; it can rupture into writhing piles of tumors; it can sprout tiny parthenogenetic bastard spawn that kill people when you’re angry; it can get taken over by slug-ish monsters and passed around like the clap; you can have a mutated uterus, or you can transmogrify into a hideous fly monster, or a port for a gross throbbing video game controller can be put in your lower back by a backwoods mechanic. Hell, some psycho psychic can blow up your head with his thoughts. The possibilities are endless. Cronenberg’s adoration of the horrors of the human body is so well known by now that Rick and Morty (2013–) has a running joke about it. His films are gross, yes, but they’re also brutally intelligent. No other madman puts as much thought into exploring the human body. Cronenberg is as concerned with challenging you philosophically (Brian O’Blivion in Videodrome is clearly based on Marshall McLuhan, the famous media sage) as he is as challenging your stomach. Naysayers focus too much on the gross-out factor of his films and fail to grasp what he’s saying. (This can explain the lukewarm reception to A Dangerous Method.) Somatic ruminations are what define classic Cronenberg. His films have something, as Mark Fisher noted, akin to what Alan Greenspan called “irrational exuberance.”
Crimes of the Future is the Canadian auteur’s first real horror film since the super-underrated eXistenZ in 1999. (The film borrows its title from one of his early films, a no-budget from 1970, in which the nascent themes of insidious institutions controlling our minds and bodies are visible.) It’s being touted as a return home for the horror maestro, and this isn’t entirely untrue. In its depiction of erotic violence, the way body mutilation/modification can allure and arouse, Crimes recalls, most obviously, Crash (1996), and, with its contraptions and use of technology and the idea of internally beautiful bodies, Dead Ringers (1988). People get off on bodily mutilation, on pain, licking and caressing wounds and scars, fingering the flesh. In this regard, the film also resembles Cronenberg’s excellent 2014 novel, Consumed (if you haven’t read it, rectify that). But Crimes, for all its luridness, feels less like, say, The Brood (1979) or Shivers (1975), cheap and dirty shockers, and more like one of his elegant late-period films, garrulous and glacial. (The film was shot by Douglas Koch rather than Cronenberg’s usual DP, Peter Suschitzky, who frames the actors in caliginous shadow; the film has a brown and barren look, simple compositions with characters pressed into the extreme side of the frame and movements that never veer or wander — it’s all so efficient, and so digital. Cronenberg has long embraced digital filmmaking, and he uses it as well as anyone.) This elegance doesn’t weaken or declaw the disturbing stuff; it makes it more unnerving, more erotic. It makes the repulsive respectable.
Crimes of the Future is probably the strangest film you’re likely to find at a Regal Cinema this year. (Cronenberg is the true Doctor Strange, ha!) At some point in the near future, humans have started to mutate. They develop “Accelerated Evolution Syndrome,” which results in the manifestation of new organs inside the body. Viggo Mortensen is Saul Tenser, a performance body-modification artist. Saul and his partner, Caprice (Léa Seydoux), are the preeminent performers of an AES show. To keep things legal, Saul has to file with the National Organ Registry, where they meet a curious bureaucrat named Wippet (the great Don McKellar) and an odd little thing named Timlin (Kristen Stewart), who wants to be part of the show, which involves Saul laying down in a bizarre pod thing with mechanical arms that look alien while Caprice operates the apparatus with a squishy controller that harkens back to the one in eXistenZ, tattooing the novel organs while they’re still inside of Saul. She then cuts them out in front of an audience that records everything. There’s also a sect of people who have surgery to make their digestive systems capable of eating plastic and synthetic foods because, as Scott Speedman says, it’s the next step in evolution, consuming the toxins with which we have poisoned Earth.
Mortensen has done the best work of his career with Cronenberg (Jauja is up there, too). Think of A History of Violence (2005), the way that placid, genial demeanor, that small-town “Aw shucks” modesty, gives way to a sotto voce intensity, those eyes staring stiletto, stoical; we see the accretion of so many years living a lie coming apart in a sudden burst of violence. And in Eastern Promises (2007), he has a knife fight totally naked. It takes balls to do that. And A Dangerous Method (2011), in which Mortensen plays Freud, with a different kind of quiet simmering intensity behind that graying beard and cigar (but is it just a cigar?). Here, he skulks about in a black shroud with very long sleeves. He moans with quivering lips when Caprice cuts into him, rasping in that low mysterious voice. “The world is a lot more dangerous now that pain has all but disappeared,” Saul says. Cronenberg loves pain. In it, he finds solace. Consider James Woods sticking a pin in Debbie Harry’s ear in Videodrome, licking the blood.
Crimes doesn’t have a central thesis; it is vaguely insoluble, torpid and very talky, with stylized dialogue (Stewart has the most fun delivering her lines; she finds a rhythm that belies the languorous pace of Mortensen). In the last 20 years, Cronenberg has only written two of his own films: Cosmopolis (2012) and Crimes of the Future. Cronenberg’s cold adaptation of Don DeLillo’s lissome 2003 novel would make a good double feature with Crimes. Robert Pattinson’s strange limo ride, the black windows throwing grotesque reflections back at a sick sad city, is shot and performed with clinical coldness, not so much anal precision as much as chilly specificity; Crimes, while (obviously) far more violent (in terms of damage done to the human body; capitalism is inherently violent), has the same kind of distance to it. We don’t get super flashy camera tricks, no braggadocio dick-swinging. (Cronenberg has never been flashy with his compositions and camera movements.) Crimes of the Future is a quietly unsettling film, the work of a filmmaker who has been doing this for 40 years. It’s cool, confident. It’s good to see the old man still delving into the exquisite grotesqueries of the human body.
Crimes of the Future is now playing in theaters across the U.S.