After a nearly ten-year absence, writer/director David Cronenberg has returned with a graphic work of body horror that looks toward what’s ahead of us all. Crimes of the Future serves as a dry and dramatic satire of a world ravaged by the effects of climate change. Relying on performance art as a form of expression for the main characters we follow, this is another Cronenbergian look at what makes up the human body and how we can test its limits. Accompanied by Cronenberg’s particular brand of weird, this film is certainly a return to the abstract and, at times, gross sci-fi designs that haven’t been seen by him since 1999’s eXistenZ.
Viggo Mortensen stars as Saul Tenser. As his name suggests, he is uncomfortable, always. Constantly speaking with a gargle and as if there’s something permanently lodged in his throat, this is a man with organic machines to assist him in sleeping and eating. They are not working properly. Something is wrong. It has to do with “Accelerated Evolution Syndrome.” Basically, the human race is evolving, and the bodies are mutating. One side effect – pain is disappearing.
This is fortunate, as the only time Saul seems comfortable is when he and his partner, Caprice (Lea Seydoux), participate in their performance art. You see, Saul can grow new organs. For the sake of art, Caprice performs surgery on him to remove these organs in front of a live audience. These shows provide the audience some level of catharsis, which has brought Saul and Caprice more attention, including the eyes of the National Organ Registry.
While the media surrounding Cronenberg’s film wants to highlight its grotesque imagery and the walkouts that occurred during its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival (I guarantee these things have been overstated), Crimes of the Future is not unlike much of his output, particularly from Dead Ringers and beyond. While one could file this as a genre feature, it’s a very patient film telling a character-based story.
Not unlike his more recent “prestige” output, the fact that extreme visuals are depicted doesn’t place this film in exploitation territory. The depiction of surgery as art and the way characters see it in a sensual manner is undoubtedly off the wall. Still, Cronenberg is too much of a formal filmmaker to simply rely on these sorts of visuals to distract the audience. Instead, his choices allow the film to have a dry sense of humor, existential peril, and carefully curated showpieces to bring the viewer into this world and feel intrigued by the drama unfolding.
Honestly, whether or not I’m just too familiar with Cronenberg’s style or I hyped up the graphic surgeries in my mind more than I needed to, I was not so much disturbed by how these performance art shows played out (whether it’s seeing weird not-a-kidneys being pulled out of Saul, or a dancer with ears all over his body). Instead, the only unnerving portion of this film had to do with the sound design of the machine Saul uses to eat. Whatever Cronenberg has done to make all of his movies feel on the same wavelength in terms of production design, it’s as impressive as it is discomforting and still quite appreciated.
Fleshing out this world are the set of calculated performances that feel entirely in tune with what Crimes of the Future is going for. Mortensen has already given at least two of his best performances in previous Cronenberg features (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises), so it’s of little surprise that he’s excellent here as well. Between his depiction of physical discomfort and the way he roams around the area in a hood robe, the persona he’s developed to portray Saul feels distinctive and knowing while respectful of what he’s become a part of. Seydoux follows suit, serving as the more professional of the pair, with the know-how to perform these surgeries and the reserve to hold her own. She plays well into this whole painless process, despite the extremes it will take people to.
Kristen Stewart and Scott Speedman creep up as two people on divided sides in supporting roles. Stewart provides a twitchy, mousey performance as Timlin, an Organ Registry investigator drawn into Saul’s world after seeing him go under the knife. It’s a showier role, but that naivety comes as an interesting counter to Speedman’s Lang Dotrice, a man helping to guide a cult of people who have evolved differently, with ambiguous goals that may or may not be for the betterment of society. Speedman can be hot and cold when looking at how he affects a film, but Crimes of the Future offers him plenty to say with just his expressions, and it goes over quite well.
Matched with another Howard Shore score to drive up the tension, excitement, and otherwise, Cronenberg’s bizarre and cerebral film is an often fascinating look at the obsessions he has called out to before. At nearly 80 years old, I can’t say the director is attempting to explore brand-new ideas as much as he’s calling out similar themes he’s explored in the past. Whether in his more horror-specific days with films like The Brood, sci-fi efforts like Videodrome, or even something more psychologically driven like Crash, his thematic interests remain clear and come through here.
Does that make this the ultimate Cronenberg feature? Not quite, as enough of his previous films had the sort of innovation and energy that allow them to stand strong to this day. Still, looking at the state of today from Cronenberg’s perspective and seeing Crimes of the Future as his current response allows for plenty to consider. It’s a film that not only presents ideas and questions but knows how to place enough in front of the viewer to have them continue pondering about it all much after recovery. That makes for a clean cut of a film.