This review was originally published on September 25, 2012 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2012 Fantastic Fest.
With his pale skin and throaty voice, Caleb Landry Jones resembles something like a sketchy distant cousin of Anton Yelchin and could pass for patron saint of the pathetic. That description would be more of an insult if he didn’t serve as such an ideal canvas for the sickly miseries concocted by writer-director Brandon Cronenberg for his feature debut, “Antiviral.”
Jones plays Syd March, employee of the Lucas Clinic for the True Connoisseur, an enterprise wherein the celebrity-obsessed can share the diseases of their favorite stars, for a price. A nasty job to be sure, but there’s a market for it, as tabloids scope out their targets with infrared cameras in order to determine who’s got the hot new bug.
Syd has been making some money on the side by injecting himself with high-value samples, smuggling them out of work and incubating the diseases at home to sell on the black market. It’s an occupational biohazard, leaving Syd to guzzle orange juice daily and rock a digital thermostat on breaks much as one might a cigarette. But when young starlet Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon) reportedly dies from an illness with which he has just injected himself, our anti-hero has to discreetly determine how she contracted it and how he might cure it.
From the concept on down, Cronenberg’s film inevitably resembles the ‘80s body horror with which father David made his name, but Brandon brings his own antiseptic eye to this queasy noir mutation, like “D.O.A.” for a self-serving near-future. The literalization of tabloid culture as actual disease feels like too easy a target for satire, but the universe in which this concept exists has been well-considered, from the technologies necessary to not only copy-protect viruses but rendering them non-contagious to the growth of steaks from celebrity cells.
Syd’s world is that of a fluorescent nightmare, rendering the material surprisingly squirmy despite the minimal appearance of actual gruesomeness. With beautiful faces like Hannah’s blown up to fill entire walls, it reflects the nature of perceived, publicized identity dominating and effectively containing characters like Syd under their spell. As for Mr. March, Jones earns our interest if not our sympathy as he meekly schemes and sweats over how his best laid plans are literally rotting him from within.
Gadon has already put in her dues with David’s “Cosmopolis” and “A Dangerous Method,” and here, she serves as a porcelain-picturesque figure of compromised beauty. The supporting ranks are nicely rounded out by a few familiar faces, like Wendy Crewson as a Lucas Clinic rival and Malcolm McDowell as a doctor with his own celeb bio-fetish.
The physical deterioration of Syd inherently results in a somewhat limited and repetitive narrative as we witness his slow, steady spiral downward without necessarily gaining much steam in the process. The mystery becomes clearer and clearer while things become bloodier and bloodier, and although the climax feels like one last stab by Brandon to echo his father’s legacy, the rest of the film suggests the promise of his own distinct, distressing career to come.