Infinity pools are built as optical illusions where water seemingly has no boundary, slipping into nothingness, bleeding into the horizon. There could be no better title for Brandon Cronenberg’s latest identity crisis-as-body horror film, “Infinity Pool,” which arrives on the heels of 2020’s “Possessor.” Set at a high-end all-inclusive resort in the fictional country of Li Tolqa (it was shot on location in Croatia and Hungary), “Infinity Pool” is larger in scope than its predecessor, the narrative grander, sharper, funnier and more wickedly perverse.
This is Cronenberg’s “Eyes Wide Shut” by way of “The White Lotus”; it is in conversation with “Triangle of Sadness,” but it also seems to be a deeply personal film about an artist confronting his insecurities and finding a transformation, of sorts, in pure abandon and submission. It’s a biting satire of wealth, an inspection of the power dynamics inherent in colonial tourism, and an indictment of the bad behavior that money not only enables, but engenders. But most of all, it cements Cronenberg as one of our greatest cinematic freaks, much like his father, the great David Cronenberg. With regard to that relationship, “Infinity Pool” is also rife with anxieties about being an artist with familial connections to industry.
The propulsive narrative and queasy, off-kilter camerawork by cinematographer Karim Hussain combine to create the sensation of being sucked down into a surreal whirlpool, entering a world that’s off-balance, almost tilted, as if we’re on a ship. The cool color palette denies the beauty of the location, and all the compositions list to the left. The close-ups are extreme, and the shallow depth of field has Hussain racking focus between the characters constantly, underlining the dissonance between our protagonist and his wife.
Alexander Skarsgård plays James Foster, a writer with an inferiority complex. Having published one novel, he’s on vacation with his wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman), the publisher’s daughter, looking for something to combat his writer’s block. Inspiration, or something like that, walks into his life in the form of Gabi (Mia Goth), a fan of his book, she claims, and soon James and Em are dining, dancing and escaping the heavily fortified resort compound for a beach picnic with Gabi and her husband Alban (Jalil Lespert).
While James is tipsily navigating their illegally rented convertible back to the resort, the headlights malfunction, and he hits and kills a local farmer, triggering his descent into the unique and dystopian legal process of the impoverished, religious and conservative Li Tolqa. He’s sentenced to die for his hit-and-run, ordered to be executed by the man’s young son. But for a hefty fee, the police can create his “double” or a clone, to be killed instead. The only catch? He has to watch.
Choosing the double seems the only choice, but it’s the one that sends James spiraling down a rabbit hole, falling in with Gabi and Alban’s crowd, all of whom have been doubled before, escaping accountability and consequences with their money. The new lease on life emboldens them to act out, deriving as much hedonistic pleasure from a home invasion as they do a drug-fueled orgy.
At the center of this kaleidoscopic wormhole of dangerously dark delight is Gabi, played by reigning scream queen Mia Goth (“X,” “Pearl”), who is as ferocious and fearless as she is funny. Gabi morphs from fawning fangirl to seductive sexpot to sadistic prankster and bully, dominating and humiliating the hapless himbo James with relish and her signature siren screech. It’s the kind of performance only Goth could pull off, intentionally campy but so fully committed that it tips over the edge into terrifying.
This feels like a quintessential follow-up to a breakthrough film — a project about writer’s block, horrible rich people and losing one’s identity over and over again, only finding peace in submitting to powerful forces beyond one’s control. Whether James is a good writer doesn’t seem to matter, and if he finds himself again is unclear, but Cronenberg sure has fun pouring blood and bodily fluids on the problem and seeing how far he can push boundaries. If you’re willing to surf on the wonderfully weird and wild wavelength of “Infinity Pool” it is indeed a singular, and unforgettable, ride.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
Rated: R, for graphic violence, disturbing material, strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and some language
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Playing: Starts Jan. 27 in general release
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