While I do find myself saying it quite often, I think “third act problems” is a strange statement. In most cases, a third act problem probably originates as a first or second act problem, as in, something needs to be resolved in the third act for the film to work and that does not happen. The third act reveals the problem, but it was an underlying structural problem that carries over across acts.
I make this distinction to say that Brandon Cronenberg’s Infinity Pool has major third act problems, but that these problems pertain to the film’s overall structure.
Cronenberg’s Possessor was my favorite horror movie of 2020. It is the type of film that does not give clarity to every angle of its story, but the overall atmosphere is inviting and the narrative has structural integrity. I keep harping on structure, because Infinity Pool is a few load bearing walls away from being a fairly compelling genre exercise. There’s another phrase that I throw around (perhaps too often) – genre exercise. We can put a pin in structure for one more paragraph, I think.
Infinity Pool is a science fiction horror movie that does not heavily rely on its sci-fi premise (it’s always there, lingering in the text and subtext, but the film seems preoccupied with less genre-inflected things). The horror extracted from this premise involves a semi-hallucinatory grappling with bodily autonomy and control (all standard stuff for the horror genre). I find this element of the film most exciting, in that Cronenberg doesn’t seem content to let the sci-fi hook of the film’s premise carry the movie; he is more keen on exploring the boundaries of genre that this premise produces.
The film follows James (Alexander Skarsgard) who is vacationing with his wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman) in an isolated compound on the (fictional) island of Latoka. The vaguely Eastern European locale is discussed by tourists as dangerous, with violence and corruption rampant outside the fenced-in walls of the chic tourist trap – this all comes into play later, although it is never fully clear what the politics or culture of this location are, as it is always seen from the perspective of rich outsiders. James and Em meet up with another couple (played by Mia Goth and Jalil Lespert), and the four go on a joyride outside the compound. After getting good and drunk, they drive home in the dead of night to disastrous results.
What follows is a protracted narrative about privilege and masculinity and moral consequences, which involves break-ins and bribes and doppelgängers and drug-fueled orgies. One cannot knock Cronenberg for being conventional, as both Possessor and Infinity Pool evade convention whenever possible.
So we return, finally, to structure. These themes of masculinity and being so rich you can get away with anything are introduced early on. The latter ultimately pulls the audience away from these characters, asking the viewer to continue watching detestable people as they pull James deeper into the mire of immorality. The former presents as something more formless, but it becomes more pressing as Mia Goth’s Gabi continues to prod at James, coaxing him into increasingly brutish behavior by challenging his “manhood” and infantilizing him.
Both of these through lines are all well and good, but they are not developed enough as to reach some grander point. Because of this, the final half hour of the film says very little of note. It is satisfied instead with circling its hedonistic drain until there is no energy left for the film to reach a satisfactory conclusion. Cronenberg finds himself chewing on a lot, so much that it is impossible to swallow.
It would be easy (and understandable, quite frankly) for a viewer to step out of Infinity Pool and ask, “to what end?” For all of its visual spectacle – the nauseating rotating shots and psychedelic horrorshows – the emptiness that the film’s central character is left with in the end reflects an emptiness underneath the film’s resplendent surface.
That said, the style is there, even as the substance is far less consistent. Cronenberg composes scenes which complement the tone well. This is particularly true in the film’s first half, where the dread is built from the choices in angle and shot length. One sequence near the halfway point – one of the film’s most memorable – involves something of a sacrificial death, and the combination of performance, editing, and sound design make the moment uncomfortable and visceral. I’ve seen my fair share of slasher films, so to say that I could feel each knife wound in this sequence is saying a lot.
Infinity Pool is by no means mainstream viewing, and even those who appreciated Possessor may walk out of this new film from Cronenberg feeling cold.
Infinity Pool: B-
As always, thanks for reading!
—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)