In “Infinity Pool”, what happens in Li Tolka stays in Li Tolka, a poor country where, if they are rich enough, foreign guests can literally get away with murder. But that’s not the half. Visitors undergo strange, drug-induced orgasms where their genitals float before your eyes. The locals hold morbid rituals, where rogues are cloned and then forced to witness their own executions. And then there are the macabre Lee Tolkan skin masks, which suggest generational inbreeding, or maybe they’re double experiments with half-salvaged faces.
It would be quite a surprise if none other than Brandon Cronenberg, the deranged son of “Scanners” director David Cronenberg, signed the film. I’m sure he’s a perfectly nice guy in real life, but whoa boy, if you’ve seen “Antiviral” or “The Passer,” you know: the kind of movies that Kid Cronenberg makes can be in your subconscious and ecstatically there for years, in so many ways. “Infinity Pool” is right on brand (transgressive shots of erections emanating from vagina-like orifices, say, or bloody Alexander Skarsgård breastfeeding). And yet, Dark Brandon seems to have gone off the deep end this time – which is exactly where a certain group of horror fans want him.
Think of “Infinity Pool” as a sort of extreme-horror, live-action version of the Eagles’ “Hotel California”: a cautionary tale of western decadence, set in and around a posh resort where carefree tourists can check out at any time. They like, but … you know the rest. Failed novelist James Foster (a dashing Skarsgård, looking more like his father than ever) blends in nicely, a more disjointed contrast to the character Ralph Fiennes played in last year’s relatively dark criminal-conscience satire “The Forgiven.” James wasn’t born rich, but married into it, and wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman) seems happy to foot the bill for such trips, hoping it will get him out of his writer’s block.
There in their beach paradise, James and Em can pretend that all is well in their lives. But there are clues — huge red flags, really, in the form of armed guards, barbed wire and dire warnings not to step off the resort — that this could be heaven or it could be hell. Enter scream queen Mia Goth (“Pearl”), who plays the aggressively friendly temptress Gabi, the trophy wife who has been courting Lee Tolka for years with shady architect husband Alban (Jalil Lespart). Gabi recognizes James and gushes about his book (which no one else seems to have read). He invites her and MK to dinner, followed by an illicit pleasure ride away from the property, where he strokes more than his ego.
Cronenberg dazzles with an extreme close-up of the money shot (how this movie got any more ratings is anyone’s guess), which helps position the audience for some distorted imagery — as if we weren’t wary after the upheaval. A series of spiraling expository shots that run through the film’s opening minutes, or the jagged sense of editor James Vandewater’s cutting. Too drunk to drive back, Alban gives the wheel to James, who runs over a farmer while crossing the road late at night. Cronenberg goes straight for the gore, shooting broken bones, crushed skulls and red pools of blood with the appetite of a gourmet food photographer. He takes a more roundabout line to guilt, which is what “Infinity Pool” really is — or rather one of the main themes of this barbed critique.
At Gabi’s insistence, they don’t call the police. The movie plays on Western fears of so-called “cool countries,” places where they’re warned that desperate locals will rape, kill or kidnap tourists — though in this case, the visitors are to blame for most of the violence. . (The resort and coastline were shot in Croatia, with other locations filmed in Hungary, though the sets are decorated with illegible signs and dirty, dark-skinned extras to suggest somewhere less surprising.) More terrifying than the corrupt authorities vaguely intimidating are the civilians on the roadside. Flashes appear, and James begins to panic when he and M are arrested the next morning.
Here the film takes a sci-fi turn, as police chief Thresh (Thomas Kretschmann) explains the manslaughter penalty: under the law, “his eldest son should kill you to protect the family’s honor.” Fortunately, there is a loophole. The Lee Tolkans have developed a duplicitous method, available at a premium cost, through which lawbreakers can copy themselves, memories and all. They can then punish the doppelganger in their place. Who wouldn’t accept such an offer? From where Cronenberg sits, it’s an interesting psychological proposition. Some people imagine attending their own funerals. Here, you can witness your execution instead.
But if the double is really your duplicate, how do you know which version of yourself was killed? Does it really matter? Over three features, Cronenberg and DP Karim Hussain have established a unique visual language, ranging from slick-to-the-point-of-sinister atmospheric photography to Henry-George-like phantasmagoric in-the-mouth-of-madness hallucinations. Closet was auditioning for “Inferno.” The latter kicks in during the cloning procedure, as “Infinity Pool” immerses us in a montage of bizarre body parts, most of them presumably artificial, though they blink too quickly to tell. All that skin is undoubtedly erotic, but also disturbing.
James emerges from the experience – not just cloning, but the shock of seeing himself abandoned – a changed man. M is horrified, insisting on leaving La Tolca immediately, but Gabi couldn’t be happier. Now he has a new playmate, whom he introduces to an elite group of other guests who have been through it all. From here, “Infinity Pool” stops feeling logical, slipping into a sort of nightmare mode, amplified by a psychotropic local drug. James embraces the liberating feeling of being above the law. Or is he just trying to escape his conscience?
What follows is an almost incoherent stew – and darkly hilarious – power game, as Goth’s Gabi stoops to insult James. His downward spiral is interesting to watch, but increasingly difficult to process (the subliminal fast cuts don’t make it any easier). By the time we encounter Skarsgård, wrestling the naked version of himself into submission, the film has long ceased to make sense. The Canadian helmer has created the cinematic equivalent of an MC Escher drawing, which bends and breaks and folds again in impossible ways. As with all things brain-wrenching, we can hardly tear our eyes away.