'Crimes of the Future': A Beguiling Return to Body Horror for David Cronenberg
It's been eight years since David Cronenberg's last film, 2014's Maps to the Stars was released, so the promise of any new film from him is cause for excitement. The fact that this is his first return to body horror and sci-fi since 1999's eXistenZ is even more of a reason to get excited. It's no secret that when most people think of Cronenberg, they tend to think associate him with weird creatures and shocking violence and horror given that his earlier works deal almost exclusively in this. Some of his best known films, such as Videodrome and The Fly are indicative of this and showcase his distinct style. But in the past couple of decades, Cronenberg has made a point to not just be the body horror guy. He has made films that are more psychologically challenging, and still use elements of his style, to varying degrees of success. Fans of Cronenberg's work have been wanting to see him return to body horror for some time now, and with his latest film, Crimes of the Future, he has done just that, but it's clear that he is doing this on his own terms, and in his own way.
It's worth noting that this film is not the non-stop gorefest or a complete WTF-fest like the marketing would have you believe. Yes, there is some scenes that are gory, and yes there are some moments that are very weird, but this film is much more meditative and tamer than most of Cronenberg's other films. There has been a trend where films that fall under the horror umbrella are marketed as the most outrageous, sickening thing ever made in order to drive interest, only for the film to feature a few wild moments and to be a different type of movie for the most part. Last year's Titane is a prime example of this, as it was marketed as the wildest movie of 2021, yet the film itself is more of an exploration of identity and familial relationships (among other themes) as opposed to a depraved series of strange moments. It's no coincidence that Neon distributed both films, and that they have capitalized on the weirder aspects of both films in order to get butts in seats. I can't blame them, as it is a smart way to get people who would otherwise skip out on these films to actually watch them, but it also has the potential to set people up for disappointment that are seeking something more outwardly chaotic.
This being said, the film that we do get with Crimes of the Future is quite disorienting, and frankly, quite disgusting, but it has a healthy dose of introspection that gives it some added depth. This is the type of film that can only come in the later years of an acclaimed director, and this film in particular feels like Cronenberg grappling with his career, his legacy, and his future. The film's premise is rooted in performance art, with Viggo Mortensen and Lèa Seydoux starring as a couple who draw crowds with their specific brand of art. Mortensen plays Saul Tenser, who has a condition known as "accelerated evolution syndrome" which causes him to develop new organs, which his partner, Caprice (played by Seydoux) surgically removes in front of a live audience. This act has made a name for them, but the long term effects that this condition has had on Tenser have brought him great pain and health issues, which has him wondering about his own future. Through all this, Saul and Caprice find themselves caught between a radical group who is seeking to reach a new stage of human evolution, and a police unit who is determined to infiltrate them. Both sides want to use Tenser to advance their agenda, which leads to inner conflict within him, and a conflict that could have serious ramifications on the world at large.
While the film never specifies how far into the future it takes place, the dystopia that Cronenberg has crafted feels not too far away from where we are now. Granted, the film features several things (specifically technologies and other items) that fundamentally do not exist in our reality, but the basic backdrop of a world ravaged by pollution and climate change does seem somewhat plausible. It helps that Cronenberg has such a clear vision of what this world looks like and weaves the specific details of it into the film effortlessly. Some of the mythos of this world doesn't fully come through, but this doesn't hinder the film in the slightest. Most of the unclear details are more minute, and the ones that are most pertinent to the film are pretty easy to understand for the most part.
The film's most potent themes lie in art itself, as it definitely feels like Saul Tenser is a stand-in for Cronenberg at some points. In the film, Tenser is well known for his extreme performance art, and others want him to continue to do this, even though it has a negative affect on his physical wellbeing. There is a specific scene where the character Lang (played by Scott Speedman) is trying to get Tenser to help him and his revolutionaries reveal there intentions to the world that could easily mirror a fan approaching Cronenberg with an idea for a film. Similarly, the way that Timlin (played by Kristen Stewart) interacts with Tenser feels like the way an obsessed fan might behave if they met their idol. Her character has such a strong reaction to Tenser's art, going as far to posit to him that "Surgery is the new sex". Tenser definitely takes a shine to this and to Timlin herself, and sees that his work still has an impact on people. Through these moments, and many others throughout the film, we see how Tenser wrestles with his art and how it affects him, and wonders if he can carry on. Cronenberg seems to be in a similar boat, as he seems to be considering whether or not he is losing his touch, and whether or not he has a place in the future of film. There are certainly more parallels to be drawn, but that would spoil certain aspects of the film. In addition, this is one of those films that I don't think I will fully appreciate until I watch it again. But that being said, this film does show that Cronenberg still has some life in him, and gives me hope that he will continue to make films for as long as he can.
It's to this film's credit that the body horror isn't used excessively, as it allows the moments where it is unleashed to have much more power. Furthermore, these moments advance the plot in a major way, and are masterfully employed. Even the film's now iconic "Ear-Man" has a much deeper meaning to it within the context of the film, and contributes heavily to the film's exploration of art. Even in his lesser work, Cronenberg is a visually dynamic filmmaker, but lucky for him, this film has plenty of substance to complement how incredible this film looks. It's almost funny for me to say that this film looks great given how disgusting the world of the film appears in the film, but it is so beguiling and so in line with his specific style that it works amazingly. In a perfect world, this would get quite a few Oscar nominations in the Behind-the-Line categories (especially Production Design and Cinematography) but it might be a long-shot given how the Academy usually treats films under the horror umbrella. I'll remain optimistic until award season comes around, but I'm not going to get my hopes up too much.
The film's cast is an interesting assemblage, led by frequent Cronenberg collaborator Viggo Mortensen. Mortensen has appeared in the bulk of Cronenberg's 2000s and 2010s output, so he is more than familiar with his specific brand of filmmaking. Given that Mortensen is portraying somewhat of a surrogate of Cronenberg himself, it helps to cast someone who has worked with him extensively over the past several years. Given the extremity of the premise and how demanding the role might sound on paper, Mortensen is surprisingly more subdued than one might think. He nails the physicality of the character and makes it his own, but he never goes big with any of it. This honestly helps the film tremendously, as it helps us connect with Tenser much more easily and showcases the more introspective nature of the character in a major way. It helps give a sense of humanity amidst the more absurd aspects of the film, and further emphasizes the film's themes of art and what it means to be an artist. Léa Seydoux is a great complement to this, as she portrays an artist who is at a much different stage than Tenser. She is much more willing to create and perform, and is doing everything she can to make sure that Tenser is able to keep working with her. The dynamic between Tenser and Seydoux's Caprice is such a fascinating one given the romantic components of their relationship, and how it bleeds into their working relationship. The way they collaborate both creatively and in their personal lives is illustrated so well, and the way the film explores how Caprice's art may or may not survive with Tenser is one of the more emotionally affecting portions of the film. The dynamic between Mortensen and Seydoux is perhaps one of the elements that struck me the most while watching this, and is one of my favorite things about the film.
I would be remiss if I didn't bring up Kristen Stewart's performance as the mousy bureaucrat Timlin, which I personally loved. The fact that this part was initially meant to be played by Seydoux before she was cast as Caprice is so strange to me, as nobody could have done this part better than Stewart. This role allows her to use her quirks an actor to great effect, and lets her take some big swings. The way she enunciates almost every word and gets to play up the nervous energy of the character is fantastic, and she makes certain acting choices that work so perfectly in the world of this film. In other words, she knows what film she's in and she nails it.
I also enjoyed Scott Speedman's performance as Lang, the leader of a radical evolutionist group. It's not a showy role, and he isn't given as much to chew on as some of his co-stars, but he deserves some credit for his contribution here. He has this sense of unearned confidence that works well with his character's motivation. It's clear that he wants to be a revolutionary, but there is this sense of doubt of whether his ideas are feasible, or if they would even work. With Speedman, he is so determined to pull off his master plan and his emotional attachment to the one thing that might prove him right is the focal point of the whole character. He has a particular scene near the end of the film that serves as the culmination of Lang's arc that might be among the best of his career. He may not be given as much to do in the film, but he makes the most of what he does get, and does so very successfully.
As is the case with Cronenberg's other work, Crimes of the Future is not going to be for everyone. That's pretty much a given at this point, but it's still worth mentioning. Even fans of Cronenberg might feel a bit slighted, but for me, I can't help but admire this film. This might not be his best film, necessarily, but it's still an excellent achievement for Cronenberg, and somehow manages to be a profound meditation on art, a darkly humorous satire, and a classic Cronenbergian body horror all rolled up in one. It's a late career film from a master of filmmaking that is much more layered than I was expecting, and has left me with quite a bit to think about. I do have some nitpicks with the film's screenplay, but they don't take away from my enjoyment too much. I definitely want to give this film another watch soon, as I'm sure there are several details I didn't pick up on during this first viewing. This film surprised me with how it resonated with me, and the film's blend of body horror and dark humor worked for me much better than it will work for some. I can see my own appreciation for this film to grow with time, and it is very possible that this film might need some time to catch on with a wider audience as well. This film may be a tad divisive at this moment, but I wouldn't be surprised if people hail it as an unsung masterpiece several years down the line. Of course, this is all just speculation, but I definitely see the potential here. Regardless, it is so great to see Cronenberg come back with a film as intriguing and well-made as this one, and it's clear he still has some life in him as a filmmaker.