David Cronenberg gets surgical, and surprisingly tender with Crimes of the Future | Pittsburgh City Paper

David Cronenberg gets surgical, and surprisingly tender with Crimes of the Future

click to enlarge David Cronenberg gets surgical, and surprisingly tender with Crimes of the Future
Photo: Courtesy of NEON
Crimes of the Future

After a storied, successful, and varied career, 79-year-old filmmakers David Cronenberg finally dares to ask the question that has always plagued him: Isn’t any hole just a hole?

In Crimes of the Future, the Canadian body-horror master’s triumphant return to the genre of his roots, he contemplates the relationship between surgery and sex early, often, and without much subtlety. The film introduces a near future where everyone is desensitized to the point that untrained surgery is one of the few ways to get your kicks, and where the casual experimentation of growing new organs can be dismissed as a bureaucratic nuisance more than as an existential threat.

In this world, Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortenson) is the closest thing to a celebrity there is. A performance artist, he uses the help of his assistant/surgeon/muse Caprice (Lea Seydoux) to grow organs and remove them in front of a live audience, a ritual that plays like Victorian-era surgery but somehow more fucked up. His act catches the attention of the National Organ Registry (they have one of those), especially an inquisitive pencil-pusher named Timlyn (Kristen Stewart).

The three actors play beautifully off of each other, starting with Mortenson, who wheezes, sweats, and grimaces through every scene, yet only shows a desire to keep going, not slow down. Caprice is his perfect right-hand, just logical enough to keep the whole operation running, just demented enough to love ripping out her partner’s intestines.

Then there’s Stewart, providing one of the most fascinatingly unhinged performances of the year. She’s the stereotype of herself turned up to 11, a mousy, twitchy woman who turns out to be way more than you’d expect. It feels like she’s doing Steve Buscemi taking an enunciation class, and wow, does it work.

Cronenberg’s filmmaking choices, meanwhile, are a little more scattershot. This is a rip-roaring entry into one of the most fascinating directors of the last 50 years; he balances true gothic-futurist beauty with a scene where someone performs oral sex on a gaping wound (don’t take your children, folks). Yet, at times, it feels a little flat, as though the desensitization of the characters has seeped its way into the film. The amount of uninspired camera work and bland shot-reverse-shot conversations convey an older filmmaker who was ready to shoot quickly and call it a day.

This sense of malaise finds its way into the storyline as well. We move from the central premise to include the autopsy of a boy who likes to eat plastic and a government conspiracy that unspools throughout. None of it is bad per se, and the plot build-up eventually leads to a stunning closing shot that deserves immediate placement in the canon of ambiguous final images. But this is a film that has constructed a world so devoid of emotion, that sometimes you wonder how much you should give yourself over to the plot.

In the end, though, these are gripes with a film that took a swing at something truly unique and comes out carving its way through flesh and blood to find itself. The mutations of the human form don’t seem to come from a fascination with the end result, but a burning desire to see what physical change can spiritually bring out of a person. In a recent Vanity Fair interview, Cronenberg also discussed how the film serves as a metaphor for abortion and the experience of being transgender, themes he has been consciously or subconsciously exploring his whole career.

The loss of control, and viewing the body, not as a sacred thing, but as a vessel through which to perform rebellious acts of free will; that’s what drives Cronenberg and Tenser to keep pushing. There’s a lot of heart in Crimes of the Future, along with a lot of other organs.

Crimes of the Future is now playing in theaters nationwide. Check for local showtimes.