“He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”
This quote by 18th-century English writer Samuel Johnson opens the Good Doctor Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as an epigraph. There, it foreshadows a number of essential elements that make up Hunter’s classic manic eulogy to the American Dream. Heroic doses of psychedelics. Flooring it through Barstow in a convertible. Psychotic breaks under the bright lights of the Vegas strip (“But nobody can handle that other trip—the possibility that any freak with $1.98 can walk into the Circus-Circus and suddenly appear in the sky over downtown Las Vegas twelve times the size of God, howling anything that comes into his head”). And, of course, the assassinations, bloodshed, and animalistic violence that ushered in the Nixon administration, killing 1960s idealism once and for all.
That same quote would also be a perfect preface to Brandon Cronenberg’s newest cinematic mindfuck Infinity Pool. While Infinity Pool trades Vegas schmaltz for an all-included luxury tropical resort plunked in the middle of a third-world country, Li (or La, depending on what article you read) Tolqa, the film is an even heavier trip, full of fear, (self-)loathing, and ritualistic hallucinogens. Oh yeah, and graphic stabby executions, blood-smeared titty-sucking, cum shots, orgies, pissing on hooded figures, home invasions, cloned doubles, and nihilistic thrill-seekers bent on destruction. No, Li Tolqa is not a good town for psychedelic drugs.
The center of this batshit storm is failed novelist James Foster, played by Alexander Skarsgård, who has jetted off to Li Tolqa to discover inspiration for a new novel, the last published a pathetic six years earlier. In tow is his soft-spoken wife and inadvertent financial backer Em (Cleopatra Coleman), who is also notably the only reasonable person in the entire film. Though a tacky generic resort that you’ll find all over impoverished countries (think the resort towns with websites featuring entirely photos of white people in countries largely populated by POC), nothing in Li Tolqa is as it seems, as the earliest shots in the film foretell with a dizzying barrel roll around the posh pool and patio, along with Tim Hecker’s frightening feedback-ridden pounding and droning score. It is here that James and Em take their breakfast as the waitstaff offers up disturbing masks, which Collider perfectly describes as “like they were made by Leatherface, if he took his skin masks and put them in the washer on the wrong setting.” These masks are related to a local tradition for the coming rainy season—something called The Summoning, which is never explained or heard of again.
No matter, though. In another portentous moment, James witnesses a local Li Tolqa resident terrorizing tourists on the beach by doing donuts in the sand on a dune buggy. While being a nebby looky-loo, James meets Mia Goth’s Gabi, a squeaky-voiced blonde beauty who does little to hide her inner psychopath, touching the pulse on his neck and joking menacingly about hanging tourists in the public square. Haha! Okay, Gabi! Though anyone with a dash of self-protection and self-awareness would run from that joke delivered by a stranger, Gabi butters James up by gushing about his one and only novel, inviting him, along with Em and her slightly off-kilter husband Alban (Jalil Lespert), to a highly gentrified Chinese restaurant on the resort’s property. So gentrified that the non-Chinese waiters wear long, braided Manchurian queue wigs. Awkward!
The next day, these fast friends venture off the resort, which is not allowed; the border is heavily policed like Gary Indiana’s strangely oppressive experience trying to get beyond the walls of Disneyland Paris in his 1994 essay “Disneyland Burns.” Unlike Indiana who was stuck in the kingdom of magic, the group borrows a convertible to lounge on the beach, get hammered, and, in Gabi’s case, give James a quick unsolicited but not unappreciated handy on a pee break. On the way home, with everyone piss drunk, James pulls an I Know What You Did Last Summer and mows over a pedestrian with Cronenberg’s camera luridly lingering on bones jutting through broken skin. At Gabi’s insistence, sneering about the Li Tolqa as backward creatures who would rape and leave Em for dead, they abandon the man’s corpse on the side of the road. This hit and run didn’t quite work as expected as James and Em wake up not only with a mega-hangover but hauled off to the starkly dystopian police precinct where James is introduced to the plot’s entire twisted thrust by deadpan Detective Thresh (Thomas Kretschmann). With pretty much any transgression, including accidents, punishable by death (executed by the first-born son of the victim, in this case, a 9-year-old boy), Li Tolqa legislated a loophole for foreign tourists and international dignitaries: For enough cash, withdrawn from the ATM within the police station (as you do), they can have a double—a doppelgänger—produced right there at the police station (as you do) who will be punished and executed in their place. This double has the same memories and therefore, is aware of their guilt. And the criminal has to watch their double’s execution, acting as a bizarrely intimate audience to their own violent demise, an experience that James not only takes in stride, but seems to, with a subtle smirk of pleasure and excitement captured in close-up, enjoy.
He’s not alone. Post-execution, James is reintroduced to now openly deranged Gabi and Alban, along with a fellow group of awful wealthy deviant marauders, all of whom were also executed for various crimes, including sodomy. What does this brush with death inspire them to do? Appreciate their friends and family? Do more for the underprivileged? Try to spread goodwill on their time on Earth? Fuck no! They go on maniacal, misanthropic, wine-and-whiskey-soaked, drug-huffing hedonistic benders that include home invasions, abductions, and holding buses hostage, waving guns around wildly all the while! And if they get caught? So what?! They can just make a new double to get executed again, while ignoring the nagging existential question if they’re not, in fact, their own double!
With this cult of misbehavior (the cult-like element only heightened once they steal the aforementioned Summoning masks), taking perverse erotic pleasure in death and destruction, it’s hard not to draw a comparison to Brandon’s daddy David Cronenberg, in particular his 1996 film Crash (as well as a pinch of Ari Aster’s Midsommar, particularly the final scene). I know that Brandon Cronenberg probably loathes being constantly compared to Big Daddy, but look, if you’re going to include that many close-ups of vaginal-like wounds, similar to the shots in Crimes of the Future, the comparisons are going to happen. Based on JG Ballard’s novel of the same title, Crash focuses on yet another underground sect primarily of privileged people who get off on car crashes and resulting scars. Though turned on by executions and doubles rather than James Dean’s last ride, there’s a similar group hysteria at work in both films, as well as a semi-everyman, both notably named James (James Spader’s protagonist in Crash is James Ballard) that is our guide as they become more and more subsumed.
One important difference, however, is the characters in Infinity Pool, while complete lunatics, don’t exude the same empty flatness to the crew in Crash. In fact, it’s this overt emotionality that drives much of the film and gives the viewer a way into the admittedly alienating imagery. Alexander Skarsgård’s perpetually dumbfounded expression does an enormous amount of work here. Take, for instance, the scene in which his double is produced. Guided into a vault-like chamber behind a red door, he stands nude, looking absurd in a swimming cap and his mouth stretched wide with cheek retractors. Through this entire process, as red and black liquid swirls around his ankles, his eyes bulge–the picture of bewilderment. And who can blame him? We’re doing the same thing! At least for a while, before he’s lost completely, James is a stand-in for the audience as we’re all continuously baffled by what’s on screen.
Yet, Skarsgård’s bug-eyed performance seems downright subtle in comparison to Mia Goth’s delightfully berserk turn as the ringleader of degeneracy. Are we surprised? From X to Pearl, Mia has emerged in this past year as not just another scream queen, but the Queen of the Unhinged (also the object of my undying love and affection), pitch-perfectly playing, as she said in the screening of Infinity Pool I saw last week, “feral women.” A flawless description! In Infinity Pool, Mia maintains a lot of the unbalanced energy we saw in Pearl: wide-mouthed screams, sudden bursts of violence, barely contained rage, and the charming bonkers look in her eyes. Unlike Pearl, though, Gabi is not striving for stardom or anything else for that matter. She’s pure id, satisfying all her carnal urges, including the enjoyment of watching James dive deeper into depravity or, as she calls it, “his transformation.” In one scene, she coaxes him about how easy it would be to shoot the victims of their home invasion; in another, she coos, “Show me how strong you are.”
Though Gabi’s baby face and voice hide a deep well of malice and madness, Mia also infuses her most threatening qualities with a healthy dose of camp. In perhaps the most memorable scene in the film, she rides atop a convertible, drinking wine and mocking James while he stomps ahead of this crazed procession. “JAAAAAAAAMES-IIIIIEEEE,” she hollers, even pulling out a bad review of his only novel. It’s not just Gabi as villain that brings the camp. Earlier, we see Gabi in her more normal form, explaining her work as an actress. Her niche? Failing realistically in infomercials. Proving her acting chops, she attempts to cut a bun with her knife, smashing and sawing at the bread while appearing confused and helpless. It’s a look anyone who has drifted off to late-night TV should recognize. Thanks largely to Mia Goth’s clear understanding of the necessity of camp in horror, Infinity Pool at least provides momentary relief through humor, something that was woefully missing from Cronenberg’s previous film Possessor, which was so grim and stark, mirroring the anhedonia of the protagonist Tasya (Andrea Riseborough), that I wouldn’t dare watch it again.
This isn’t to say Infinity Pool is easy viewing. Beyond lingering body horror close-ups of bubbling blood or pummeled faces, Cronenberg retains some of the most distressing surreal methods from Possessor, namely extended flashing nightmarish montages. Faces distort and tear apart. Nipples burst with fluid. Naked women writhe in disco lights. Masked figures perform strange Jodorowsky rituals. From fever dreams to trippy orgies, Infinity Pool is riddled with these scenes. So much so that it tends towards self-indulgence, particularly the heavy use of neon, which, let’s be honest, has been done to death—the enduring Refn influence. Yet, I can forgive some of these excesses. This is a film about decadence after all.
That fact put off quite a number of critics. Apart from rightly pointing out the glaring plot holes in the film (like…how did a poverty-stricken country get the tech to make doubles?), almost all the reviews complain that the film didn’t launch a more incisive critique of class, centering, as it does, around elite resort-going assholes. For example, Ross Bonaime whines in Collider: “But the problem with Infinity Pool is the decision to set up this fascinating concept about how rich, white tourists treat often poor vacation spots as their own personal playgrounds, and instead of exploring that fully, decides to go down a path of weird-as-shit concepts with seemingly little reason to exist other than to jolt the audience and give the world even more Mia Goth memes.” Are wealthy tourists behaving badly really fascinating? Is that a fresh concept as Ross seems to imply? I understand why critics, spotting the white poolside furniture and azure waters of a vacuous tourist trap, would presume the film would include a vigorous finger-wag about class. We’ve been trained by the recent glut of TV and films—The White Lotus, The Menu, Triangle of Sadness, Tár, Glass Onion—to expect tepid class critique. But do we really need more of this? I don’t know about you, but it’s hard to think of anything more disingenuous than, say, a crack about student loans from HOLLYWOOD. The last thing I want is an obvious treatise on privilege from Brandon Cronenberg.
Instead, Cronenberg gives us something much more interesting while not avoiding privilege entirely (you need enough cash to make those doubles, don’t you?). As he said at the film screening I attended, the film is about “bland people in a bland place” who submit to their baser animalistic instincts, as we all have the capability to do. “Each of us has Heaven and Hell in him,” Oscar Wilde writes. I don’t quote The Picture of Dorian Gray for no reason. In many ways, Infinity Pool reminds me of a sci-fi/horror version of Wilde’s classic. Both Dorian Gray and Infinity Pool question what would happen if we lived out each and every impulse, no matter how horrific or immoral, with absolutely no consequences. You know, decadence! I can even imagine Gabi delivering some of Lord Henry’s most convincing lines like if “one man were to live out his life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, express every thought, reality to every dream—I believe that the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy…” She does reference the doubling as “a gift, a new skin working into place.” The big difference, however, is instead of a portrait gathering evidence of Dorian’s many sins, James collects and carries urns containing the ashes of his late doubles.
Whether a portrait or an urn, living decadently eventually takes its toll. Both Dorian and James have to confront themselves. In both cases, quite literally. As Hunter S. Thompson describes in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, “No sympathy for the devil; keep that in mind. Buy the ticket, take the ride…and if it occasionally gets a little heavier than what you had in mind, well…maybe chalk it up to forced consciousness expansion: Tune in, freak out, get beaten.”