An intermittently intriguing exercise in designer depravity, Brandon Cronenberg’s Infinity Pool, about a failed novelist on a seaside vacation turned tour of hell, is gripping fun until it isn’t. It has its merits—chiefly very good performances by Alexander Skarsgård and Mia Goth—but wears out its premise and welcome long before it ends.
Skarsgård plays James Foster, a hack author in a sophomore slump, emasculated by his wealthy wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman), who foots the bill for both his artistic follies and their upscale holiday in the fictional resort country of Li Tolqua (filmed primarily in Croatia), a haven for wealthy international tourists who, it turns out, behave very poorly.
Li Tolqua is a study in dramatic contrasts between the playtime lifestyles of the rich, kept gated and guarded behind resort lines, and its citizens, impoverished and less sophisticated outside the confines of touristic luxury. An early picture intrusion finds a local storming a resort beach on an ATV to the confused vacationers—“He’s making a statement,” they’re told. But a statement about what?
Enter fellow vacationers Gabi (Mia Goth, going for it) and Alban (Jalil Lespert). Gabi, an avowed admirer of James’ poorly received first book, insists the foursome spend some quality time together, and it isn’t long before the charismatic pair entices the bored couple to join them for an afternoon at a hidden cove outside resort boundaries—forbidden—and it is here that fun begins. Gabi, a come hither seductress, quickly establishes sexual conquest over James. Now, it seems, there are two women in control.
The gist of the plot hinges on an accidental roadside death with James at the wheel, a crime that Gabi and Alban insist, in James’ desperation, must be covered up, leading to Draconian law enforcement consequences producing body horror shocks by way of Cronenberg’s legendary dad, David, who wrote the book on such viscera.
It would a crime to divulge anything more, except to say that there are harsh local disciplines in store, but in ways we’d never dream of, and here Cronenberg has a ball with the idea of the rich (recently satirized in Triangle of Sadness and The Menu) in dark congress with the local police, a scheme involving massive cash payments, human clones and very bloody retribution.
The midsection of the picture, veering into a perverse cycle of violent criminal indiscretions requiring absurdist “punishments,” is stylish, lurid, amusing and frequently surprising, James increasingly drawn into a bizarre fraternity of crime and payback. What’s the point to all this? Well, you’ve got to hand it to Cronenberg for eschewing predictability in a movie that is continually surprising. For its protagonist, each new development presents mystery woman Gabi as either endearing or utter batshit crazy, an enigma as deep as his predicament.
Cronenberg—whose last picture, the body infiltration-corporate assassin thriller Possessor, was superior and given a major assist by a great Andrea Riseborough—is undoubtedly a filmmaker to watch, given his originality and technical precision (and impressive devotion to his father’s Grand Guignol obsessions).
Infinity Pool is often ambitious and accomplished in its own right, both as mystery and horror but also as social commentary targeting the wealthy as largely miserable, their playgrounds increasingly unsatisfying, their advantage and entitlement inescapable prisons (even if able to erase their transgressions with money) and their satisfaction achieved only through escalating sexual and violent gamesmanship.
The idea, that James is being dismantled and remade or reborn, or coming into his own as a man an artist through such hyper-violent extracurriculars, is well rendered. Yet, it can feel excessive to watch, particularly in a five-minute orgy sequence that while undeniably accomplished—flashing lights, participants morphing into each other, pulsating music and plenty of grisly bodily permutations—overstays its welcome.
The same can be said for the film, which at 117 minutes, the R-rated cut (slightly trimmed from the NC-17 Sundance premiere) feels too long, and by the final reel suggests diminishing returns to the premise and tension. But what a premise Cronenberg has concocted, part Twilight Zone and part social commentary, flirting with fascinations that include the subsuming of the self in marriage, living as a false self (without, perhaps, being aware of such), the impact of emasculation on the male ego, the question of harsh punishments for misbehaving foreigners, the relationship between wealth and decay and bodily danger as thrilling aphrodisiac.
Such commentary is a tall order for a film that prizes style over character, and Infinity Pool’s shortfall is that despite a superb performance from Skarsgård (following his equally terrific The Northman work) and an arresting twist on the femme fatale by Goth, both characters are mere constructs, the picture never allows for genuine investment in its anti-hero or his dilemma. It’s conceptual and cool, all right, but also detached. By its final moments, we’ve seen something daring, but not quite compelling.
2 1/2 stars