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‘Crimes of the Future’ Review: Old-school Cronenberg’s return is gloriously off-kilter and sneakily profound

Viggo Mortensen and Léa Seydoux dig into themselves – literally – and search for meaning along the edge of humanity's next chapter.
Credit: Neon

TEXAS, USA — For nearly half a century, sex and violence have double-helixed the David Cronenbergian ethos as the two most intimate acts the human body can engage in, that DNA having recently been observed in everything from Spike Jonze’s pastel-painted “Her” to Julia Ducournau’s carnivorous “Titane.” Whereas Old Testament Cronenberg – icky, thrilling, subversive – preached the advent of a new flesh and New Testament Cronenberg – clinical, callous, ostensibly uncaring – reveled in the inexplicability of familiar social hierarchies, the filmmaker’s newest, “Crimes of the Future,” serves up a last supper of amusing (and, yes, bloody) vengeance, pitting such grand ideas as evolution, consumption and performativity against a subsect of humanity so naively feeble that it relies on groaning sentient furniture from the Upside Down’s IKEA to aid in the most basic functions of digestion and sleep. 

“You should let your body lead you where it wants to go,” one character advises in the horror maestro’s latest, and while that’s a concept Cronenberg has exploited for decades, the most aching sequences in his 22nd feature feel around for the line between spectacle and self-satisfaction. More than seeing career-long fascinations to their logical ends, “Crimes of the Future” – a fiendish and funny return to the body-horror subgenre Cronenberg birthed with oozefests like “The Fly,” “The Brood” and “Videodrome” – metatextualizes its director’s proverbs to anarchic and appropriately obtuse extremes. In his eyes, the worst crime may be thinking we have any say in our future at all. 

The new new flesh as observed in “Crimes of the Future” – set in an ambiguous near-future or dystopian present where the organic and technological have fully synthesized – is a long-traumatized thing, an organic canvas of carnal discovery for a human race that’s evolved past the point of physical pain. Worn by performance-artist Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and often cloaked by a Sith Lord’s all-black robes, this flesh is advertised as a vessel for miracles. Meanwhile, a cultish group led by Scott Speedman’s Lang Dotrice lingers in the shadows of this movie’s deep shadows, and seems to view their bodies as a Pandora’s Box, their contents destined to be weaponized. 

Somewhere between exiles and prophets, Saul and the other denizens of the erstwhile coastal paradise where “Crimes of the Future” unfolds grunt, gasp, whisper and wheeze through the days, as if role-playing their way along a spectrum of human sensation. Touch has long been Cronenberg’s most acute cinematic sense, which of course is just another way of saying the characters in his most iconic stories achieve a twisted salvation by giving themselves over so completely to touch that they end up turning themselves inside out, either psychologically or physiologically. 

How unmistakably Cronenbergian it is, then, that the living petri dish Saul (Viggo Mortensen) has built a reputation by repeatedly opening himself up in the spotlight of underground acts to bear the fruit of freshly grown organs from within. He is assisted (read: probed) by his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux), who fondles a squishy remote control with light-up buttons that don’t indicate the tool they’re communicating with so much as the apparent pleasure centers being satisfied inside Saul as he licks his lips while being cut open, his innermost self exposed for the audience that’s gathered. 

Indeed, “Surgery is the new sex,” as Kristen Stewart’s awestruck admirer Timlin observes, a hint of passion in her voice. But there is implied meaning in surgery, and also in sex. In the world of “Crimes of the Future,” where the line between the profound and the phony is thin, there appears to be everything but meaning. It’s been stripped away, which of course means it’s everywhere Saul, Caprice, Timlin and Lang insist it’s to be found. 

The narrative is introduced through the harsh setup of a child’s murder and the hardened exterior of a latter-day Cronenberg script that resists contextualizing its madness, preferring instead to internalize it. Shepherded along with the spectacularly uneasy horns of Howard Shore’s score, the general beats of the plot have been beaten down into the pulpy essence of a denser opera that I’m sure lives in Cronenberg’s head. Devotees will be happy to know he prioritizes the most eccentric bits, including death by drill bit, erotically charged dialogue and a touch of self-mockery to compliment the self-mutilation.  

But there’s also a potent sadness to the manicured staginess of it all, and a reciprocal desperation in the exploits we witness. Because Cronenberg tripped up audiences by feigning a sense of detachment in his most recent movies, some will be searching closely for the passion in what they’ll see as such a dispassionately rendered cinematic setting where urgency is traded for philosophy. 

But “recent” is doing some heavy lifting here, seeing as “Maps to the Stars” released eight years ago, before a cavalcade of history-shifting events left the real world numb come the start of 2022. Are we not, in a sense, still searching for some meaning or justification too? Perhaps Saul and Caprice’s hunt for something to be passionate about isn’t as removed from our own as we might think, even as Cronenberg insists it’s OK for us to laugh at the absurdity of their approach. What better reminder of our endless internal wanderings than a movie that often feels like it’s unfolding at the last stages of the known world, delivered by the man endlessly mapping our insides?  

“Crimes of the Future” is beguiling cinematic scripture for reasons we may only pretend not to understand. Open up, its director tells us, and make sure to open wide. For there’s no telling what may emerge from within. 

"Crimes of the Future" is now screening in theaters. It's rated R for strong disturbing violent content and grisly images, graphic nudity and some language. Runtime: 1 hour, 47 minutes. 

Starring Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux, Kristen Stewart, Scott Speedman.

Written and directed by David Cronenberg.

2022

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