The rich exploiting the impoverished is nothing new. Seeing how they find new ways to skirt the rules of the law — both in fiction and reality — can depress. However, in Brandon Cronenberg‘s Infinity Pool, we are both witnesses and gluttons of punishment, taking in the gradual breaking down and rebuilding of Alexander Skarsgård‘s James Foster in the process.
Beautifully shot and designed to make the audience squirm, the descent of Foster into moral decay and subsequent psychological ruin is uncomfortably delicious.
Vacationing in the fictional island location of La Tolqua, labelled by the tourists that frequent their shores as barbaric among other things, we’re introduced to failed author James Foster (Skarsgård) and his wife, Em Foster (Cleopatra Coleman).
It becomes quickly established that Em finances James in his entirety, and there is an undercurrent of resentment and ridicule that prompts frequent digs at his inability to write. Clearly unhappy, this sets the stage for the ease in which he transitions from one woman to the other upon him meeting Gabi (Mia Goth).
Gabi flatters James, telling him how much he loves his book and building him up enough to get him to accept an invite out to dinner with her and her husband, Alban (Jalil Lespert). After a successful dinner out, the quartet embark on a forbidden journey outside of the resort’s ultra-guarded walls. The casualness in which Gabi and Alban break this rule is the first sign of things to come. Borrowing a car from one of the employees, they all journey to a secluded beach, where more subtle digs are made at James’s expense and Gabi asserts her hold — both literally and figuratively — over the man.
With everyone too drunk to drive, James takes the wheel. Then, perfectly capturing my worst nightmare scenario, he hits a La Tolquan citizen. In shock, Gabi and Alban whisks the other couple away to abandon the body and return to the resort. James is jailed not long after and is presented with a choice – die at the hands of the next of kin or pay to have a clone made to die in his place. The catalyst for his awakening, this decision proves to be a damning one as audiences will witness in Infinity Pool.
The storyline itself is straightforward. It’s a tragedy of James’s own making from beginning to end, with other interwoven ideas to give it some extra zest. There’s a clear exploration of how the rich exploit legal loopholes for maximum pleasure and violence. With La Tolqua having developed this cloning method in exchange for a large sum, those who can afford to live can get away with their crimes.
Infinity Pool also provides one of the clearest examples of trauma bonding through the development of the relationship between James and Gabi. It ebbs and flows, escalates and explodes. Gabi lures him in, plies him with compliments and kindness whilst also testing the limits of his boundaries. By the time he realizes that she is no good, it’s too late. This all comes to paint a cautionary tale of the subtle insidious nature of this kind of behavior.
We see this relayed to us through dialogue, character interactions, and the overall performance from Skarsgård. His body language conveys easily someone who is defeated. He makes himself smaller when intimidated and scared. Arguably, because of the vulnerable place Skarsgård’s performance takes him in playing against time, this is by far the most fascinating and intriguing character performance Skarsgård has turned in.
Mia Goth’s Gabi is a nightmare. Delight and terrifyingly concerning in one beautiful package, Goth delivers another strong villain. Manipulative, conniving, and a master of the science behind trauma bonding, Gabi is the character that draws attention. It makes perfect sense how she can sink her claws inside James’s mind. By film’s end, you’ll see her as the monster she really is and still applaud her every step of the way.
Compared to the rest of the cast, Cleopatra Coleman’s performance sticks out as the weakest. As wife Em Foster, there is a struggle to maintain a semblance of chemistry or connection that hints at the ten-year relationship they’re proposed to have. The dialogue sets up just enough tension to connect the dots to see why James can be led astray so easily.
A more thorough internal backstory might have helped Coleman in building a stronger performance. When s*** hits the fan, she is just believable enough that Coleman’s Em is the only one standing a moral ground. But her performance could have pushed harder to stand toe to toe with what Goth and Skarsgård were delivering. As is, she easily gets lost among more dynamic performances.
What may cloud some viewers’ thoughts overall on Infinity Pool is the embrace of (much needed) sexuality that Cronenberg executes with his actors onscreen. For an audience unused to displays of sexual acts, this can raise hackles. However, I’d argue that it’s not just to titillate. There is a purpose to the sexual moments that make sense to the storyline. Though, one scene could have been cut down due to dragging the overall flow.
The visuals of Infinity Pool are gorgeous. Reunited with cinematographer Karim Hussain, Cronenberg and Hussain are clearly having fun experimenting. The usage of color creates memorable visual contrasts onscreen. Bright blues, deep reds, a kaleidoscope hallucinogenic explosion dazzles the eye. The close-up shots on actor’s lips, eyes, etc., facilitate a much-needed intimacy to heighten the viewers’ senses. This too comes in handy in more stimulating sequences.
Other experimentations come too soon. The dramatic camera tilts taking us to increasing angles at the beginning of the film disorient too soon. From an editing and tonal standpoint, the visuals developed there would have worked better much later in the film as James and co become more frenetic. As it stands, it disorients the viewer long before James reaches that point. A slow steady toad boil of disorientation would have served better.
While the story of the rich engaging in hedonism taken to the extreme in foreign lands is not new territory, Cronenberg’s focus on the vulnerable James as fodder for the wolves provides a fascinating exploration. The introduction of cloning being a tool exploited for the state for monetary gain as well as providing vengeance for the impoverished citizens is another idea that fascinates. Should Cronenberg want to explore it in another project, there would be plenty of ground still left to uncover in these ideas he planted in Infinity Pool.
As is the case with any work by a Cronenberg, Infinity Pool will not be for everyone. It has already proven divisive. It’s horny, uncomfortable, and, in some ways, soul-crushing. I imagine if left up to his own devices, Cronenberg could have pushed these elements further. We’re watching a man destroy himself in pursuit of validation, to unbury himself from the self-hatred that he’s drowning in, and it makes for a compelling watch during the more distractable sexy moments.
While not perfect, Infinity Pool is a watch that will have many talking. As a movie goer and critic, what Cronenberg has presented is something that will stick to your brain and not let go. In a filmscape that can occasionally feel monotonous, memorability is what lingers, and Infinity Pool succeeds in this task. Now to wait to see what he’ll come up with next.
As a warning, if bodily fluids, flagrant sexual displays, and violence aren’t your thing, Infinity Pool will not be for you. The film also features strobe and flash effects, so be mindful if sensitive.
INFINITY POOL REVIEW SCORE: 8 OUT OF 10
Infinity Pool is rated R for graphic violence, disturbing material, strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and some language. The NEON release will open in theaters on January 27, 2023.