Syd March is a ghostly looking salesman for an agency that sells biological material (viruses) obtained from celebrities. Syd sells these viruses to well heeled customers who crave a perverse physical connection with their idols: illness contracted from the celebrities they adore. The offices of Sid’s employer look like a cross between a high gloss media agency and a funeral home, with the sales staff dressed identically in the classic black suit, white shirt and black tie ensemble; this is clearly a lucrative enterprise.
The staff are subjected to intense security checks before leaving the premises to stop them from stealing any of the company’s proprietary merchandise, but Syd has found a way around this by injecting himself with the viruses and then extracting his blood at home and selling it on to a seedy butcher shop that, among other things, uses celeb cells to grow revolting ‘meat’. The agency’s most highly prized celebrity is an impossibly beautiful woman named Hannah Geist, and when she becomes fatally ill with a disease that Syd is also infected with he finds himself both a very sought after commodity and a desperately ill young man.One of the most intriguing things about Brandon Cronenberg’s admirable debut feature Antiviral is how closely it echoes the themes and content of his father David Cronenberg’s early horror masterworks, and it will be the rare reviewer who doesn’t make this observation. In most instances, the child of a famous artist would shy away from doing material that draws direct comparison with that of his parent, but Cronenberg embraces his father’s obsession with body image and gore; perhaps, as Roald Dahl put it, the acorn is (gleefully) rotting not far from the tree.
Caleb Landry Jones as Syd and Sarah Gadon as Hannah play their roles with physical and psychological committment, and bring some warmth to otherwise very chilly proceedings; however satirical the writer-director’s intentions may be, and unlike a few of the supporting cast, Landry Jones and rapidly rising star Gadon never stray into that territory.
The other apparent visual influence on the film is Stanley Kubrick, and specifically A Clockwork Orange. Antiviral emulates the white clinical look of that film and 2001, and the framing of certain shots seem like a direct reference to Clockwork Orange‘s boxy compositions of rooms and the people within them, placed far from the camera in the rear of the frame. The Kubrick homage is made most specific with the unexpected casting of Malcolm McDowell as a doctor who harbours his own unhealthy obsession with Hannah.
To his credit, while he loads the film with a lot of ideas about physical, psychological and cultural illness, it all holds together well and doesn’t feel over as stuffed as many debut features do. It will be interesting to see if the filmmaker has got his shared ‘Cronenbergian’ obsessions out of his system (he says in the production notes that the film was born out of serious flu that he suffered from) or whether we’ll see more explorations of this sort of body/social horror from him.