Sunday, June 5, 2022


Screenwriter Alex Garland is steadily building a directorial career of high concept genre projects interested in showing misogyny as a social prison we desperately need to escape. There’s the tech bro compounds in Ex Machina and Devs, and the lonely toxic wilderness of Annihilation, all twisted around a need to control and objectify and watch as the victims either are subsumed or seek revenge. Chilling stuff. His latest goes one step further into making his meaning quite literal. It’s called Men. Enough said, right? It starts with a woman in mourning. She asked her husband for a divorce and he almost immediately jumped to his death. A shocking start to a movie, to say the least. She (Jessie Buckley) is off to the countryside, where she’s rented a house in a tiny village. She’s going to be by herself a while and recover. That’s the plan, anyway. Alas, the village is seemingly entirely populated by creepy men of one sort (insinuating landlord) or another (unctuous priest) or another (bratty teen) or another (naked drifter). She encounters them (all played by Rory Kinnear in a procession of wigs) one after another. This is not the trip she needs. Garland makes good use of the rural quiet and empty natural spaces. When a silhouette suddenly stands at the end of a tunnel and runs toward our lead—and us—it’s frightening. Same when the nude drifter is suddenly lurking behind her, peering unnoticed in a picture window, or when the priest somberly listens to her testimony of trauma and priggishly asks: you must ask, why you made your husband kill himself? Yikes.

The tension builds until a long, gory, completely fantastical climax. Here Garland’s tight, atmospheric little horror movie nosedives into allegory its metaphorical scaffolding can’t support. There are three great shivers-up-the-spine moments, but then it becomes a morass of soupy, bloody imagery that stretches itself in an elaborate symbolic gesture that makes a rather simple point early and often. It’s not difficult to clock its pseudo-religious folk horror intensions from the start. What happened to her husband? A fallen man. What does she do when she arrives at her rental home? Eats an apple from the tree. She’s surrounded by verdant garden imagery. So it’s a movie about sin and consequences, who begets them and who gets blame. I like all of that, but Garland never gets any deeper than the peel, leaving the core untouched. Once we’ve gotten the sense of Buckley’s emotional state, an impressively on-edge performance, and seen an increasingly unsettling creepiness in every encounter—both overtly upsetting and sinister underlying subtext—the ground is set for a fascinating freak out. Instead, Garland only provides a tedious unfolding of symbolism that’s, by the end, somehow both easy and inscrutable, as one toxic man births another and another and so on until the end of time. And then woman inherits the earth.

Leave it to David Cronenberg to make the truly upsetting, and atypical, horror movie of the moment, all the more unsettled for playing like a gross drama, never stretching for obvious scares. He hasn’t made a film in nearly a decade, and not one so overtly engaged with the body horror of The Fly or Videodrome for longer than that. This new work is a relaxed and confident idiosyncratic vision, an old master showing us how it’s done. Crimes of the Future is a sickly melancholy movie that looks about at our current states, imagines a dim, dirty, empty future, and feels queasy. We’re evolving to survive on trash, to digest garbage and call it sustainable sustenance. That’s quite a provocative thesis for this fascinating and disgusting movie, a picture of bodies in revolt, and revolting bodies cut open. In this future world, humankind has stopped feeling pain. This has led to surgery becoming a form of entertainment—“Surgery is the new sex,” one fan purrs—with performance artists willingly getting outré and novel plastic surgeries—new gills and folds and flaps and ridges—for the benefit of appreciative audiences. One scantily clad man whose body is covered in decorative ears dancing somberly to pounding club beats in a dank basement proscenium is typical of this new art scene. We meet characters who propose to shock people with an autopsy, and others who fear what all this messing with physiology might mean for human evolution. Either way, it’s a grim vision of attempting to control others’ bodies, and one’s own, and the futility of it in the face of biological inevitabilities and vulnerabilities. Maybe society is as doomed to decay as we are? How grim.

The best of the bunch in this future art scene is a performance artist (Viggo Mortensen) who is literally growing new and unusual organs inside his body, and then his surgeon (Léa Seydoux) cuts them out on stage. What an act! The surgeries, of course, happen without anesthetic, and with the use of a complicated mechanical sarcophagus that’s full of intestine-like wiring and run with a fleshy remote. The reception afterwards features the organ of the day on display. It gives new meaning to the typical artist small talk: so, what are you working on? It’s not difficult to see this as metaphor for Cronenberg himself—a master at contorting the human body for his horror films, here confronting the material that made his name, wondering if he has it in him to pull another out for our amusement. Mortensen grunts and coughs and moans, staggers and limps, is clad in black with a hood pulled low in public and a cloth over his mouth. He cuts a figure like one shambling straight out of a Universal monster movie. The sound of a fly buzzing sometimes follows him around—one wonders what this movie smells like. He’s fascinating because he’s not one simple metaphor—he’s an artist gestating new and unusual ideas, ripping himself open for an audience’s judgment; he’s an aging man whose body is changing in uncomfortable ways, a fact over which he has little control; he’s a tortured man who isn’t sure if he should change with the times. He has further entanglements that are unfolded as the movie proceeds, but the core is his artistic and romantic relationship with his surgeon. There’s a queasy scene where they bond, cuddled up, for some mutual self-harm. In a world without pain, what does it mean to feel?

Here’s a film full of rich and puzzling characters—a grieving father with some sick plans (Scott Speedman), a bureaucrat who wants to set up a new organ registry (Don McKellar), his assistant who is twitchily drawn to this underworld (Kristen Stewart). Throughout there’s a sense of a society in flux, fluid definitions of what’s expected and where to go next. All are in some kind of discomfort. Some take pleasure in that state. It’s a film of open wounds and tumorous growths, of slippery internal organs and gooey foodstuffs, of sticky drool and singed skin. It’s a gross world. People buy skeletal chairs that adjust their spines to better digest meals. They gawk in backroom surgery shows. Their bodies are who they are. It’s matter-of-fact, though by the end it’s small comfort to know some sights will still shock them. Cronenberg’s vision here is one of a future driven by this sense of biological change, a world caught mid-shift, where new generations may be inheriting the garbage of their ancestors and irrevocably changed by their bodies’ attempts to process it. What a haunting idea of sins of the old inescapably passed on to the new, physicalized and embodied by the grotesqueries we see. But what hope we find in the beauty of the human body, and its capacity to survive even this. By the end, the story is even edging toward an epiphany—man’s capacity to make peace with his body, and embrace what it needs. The film moves with Cronenberg’s typical icy deliberateness, the better to ruminate on these themes and wonder about these characters. It’s complicated and unresolved, alive to the protrusions and pustules of messy life.

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