The primary question about ANTIVIRAL would probably have to be how far the acorn that is Brandon Cronenberg falls from David Cronenberg's tree. The answer is: not terribly far, but not as close as you might think, either. Yes, there are body horror aspects to ANTIVIRAL that are very much in common with David Cronenberg's earlier work, and thematically ANTIVIRAL is welcome company with VIDEODROME and even THE FLY, but David Cronenberg has a clarity of vision that Brandon hasn't quite mastered yet.
ANTIVIRAL's plot is strikingly original - we live in a world of false idolatry, and Sid March (Caleb Landry Jones, who is fantastic) swims with the current along with everyone else. Celebrity is the new religion (the new flesh, if you prefer) and March is a broker of celebrity viruses - non-fatal, but effective at bring each recipient that much closer to their demigod. The current head of the celebrity pantheon, Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon) is one of March's clinic's exclusives, and people pay top dollar to experience any fraction of her life, including her sicknesses.
March is also something of an addict himself, injecting himself with his own product, and constantly fighting off one bug or another. When he gets an opportunity to directly come in contact with Geist for a new sickness, he takes her blood, injects it into himself, and suddenly his life becomes in danger, not only from what he has done to himself, but from other shady individuals and corporations that are interested in collecting Hannah Geist's possibly deadly virus.
Brandon, like his father, is the master of the slow burn and some cringingly disturbing moments. True full-blown moments of gore are mostly absent - Brandon Cronenberg is much more interested in getting under the audience's skin than in grossing them out. But David Cronenberg's films are edited in a concise and direct manner, never wasting a moment at the expense of the plot or the characters, and even then still manage to build an atmosphere of dread and a tone that unnerves the viewer. Brandon isn't quite there yet - he can set a tone of unease as well but the film meanders a bit in its second half as Sid is pursued by nefarious forces while he tries to understand just what he's infected himself with.
The world of ANTIVIRAL is seedy and disheartening, and I was imagining a world - not as far off as we'd like - where this would be possible. From cloning celebrity DNA to transforming said DNA into celebrity meatsteaks for the ardent fan to consume, this was a world that I would have liked to have seen explored more a bit - we're constantly with Sid and his trials and Brandon doesn't take much time looking around the universe he's built. But that's a minor quibble. The movie looks fantastic - Karim Hussain gives the movie a cold, sterile fel that accentuates the disturbing body imagery when it happens.
Caleb Landry Jones is terrific - a ghost of a man, skulking around trying to sell the latest designer bug, he falls very much into the Cronenberg antihero that we're familiar with in movies like VIDEODROME or DEAD RINGERS. As his search becomes more desperate, his performance grows more intense and the audience even becomes sympathetic to his plight. It's a fascinating character and performance.
As first films go, ANTIVIRAL is impressive - Brandon Cronenberg has absolutely built a world that is unnervingly believable and has created real dread and unease. Once he figures out how to focus his tone with better editing, he very well could be in his father's league. He isn't very far now - ANTIVIRAL is a movie that deserves the Cronenberg label of excellence, regardless of which generation lays claim to it. Well done.