Runs Fri., April 19–Thurs., April 25 at Grand Illusion. Not rated. 106 minutes.
Kim Kardashian has psoriasis, Miley Cyrus has tachycardia, and Pamela Anderson contracted hepatitis C through a dirty tattoo needle, conditions that might even elicit a twinge of sympathy from us non-tabloid-readers. But in his debut film, Brandon Cronenberg (son of David) creates a world in which celebrity obsession has reached a bizarre peak: People don’t just sympathize with their favorite stars’ diseases, they want to be infected with the same viruses, to achieve “biological communion.” At the Lucas Clinic, clients pay to be injected with the viruses harvested from the stars (who profit from the arrangement).
Lucas sales rep Syd March is played by Caleb Landry Jones (X-Men: First Class), whose pale, freckled skin and red hair (tied back in a tight knot) give him a severe, creepy aura. “I understand your fascination with her. I understand completely,” he purrs to his clients, as their celebrity crushes writhe sexily on a monitor. However, March has been selling the copyrighted viruses on the black market, and the only way to smuggle them out of the lab is by injecting himself with them, then walking out the door. His side business is going swimmingly, until he encounters a withering disease from the most in-demand celebrity of them all, Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon, who last appeared in papa Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis).
Plenty of writers and filmmakers snark about tabloid culture, but Brandon Cronenberg’s savage satire is wildly creative. It also serves to make the subject even more distasteful. Celebrity anuses and vulvas are discussed casually; butcher shops grow celebrity muscle cells into wet, gluey “steaks” that are devoured by crazed customers; and, most bitingly, we never find out what Hannah and her fellow celebs are famous for. Are they actresses? Singers? Who knows why? The same could be asked of the Kardashians or Honey Boo Boo. “Celebrity is not an accomplishment,” says March’s boss, Dr. Dorian Lucas (Nicholas Campbell), in the film’s most provocative line. “It’s a collaboration we choose to take part in.”
Antiviral eventually gets lost in its twists and dark corners—there’s March being betrayed by his friends, a rogue Lucas employee on the loose, a death hoax masterminded by a doctor (Malcolm McDowell). It’s too much to keep straight. But Jones puts on a bravura performance—becoming haggard, limping on a cane, his hair a mess. It drives the film at breakneck pace to a sickening ending.