The Films of Brandon Cronenberg: Antiviral (2012) and Possessor (2020)

With the advent of David Cronenberg’s return to body horror via Crimes of the Future, I thought it would be fun to have a look at his son Brandon’s two feature films, those being Antiviral (2012) and Possessor (2020). Both films could be described as sci-fi thrillers or even horror; both take place in a futuristic setting (and are shot in Toronto); both are violent and disturbing; both concern the body, identity, corporations, and espionage. If you’re thinking, hey, that sounds a lot like Cronenberg senior’s movies, you’d be right. Father and son tackle roughly the same themes and do so with a similar stylistic remove. In my opinion, Brandon’s first two films constitute a fascinating continuation of the aesthetic pioneered by dad. That said, this aesthetic is certainly different under the younger Cronenberg, I don’t mean to suggest a slavish imitation.

Antiviral is a satire of our celebrity-focused culture with a rather inspired twist: for the right price, you can be injected with a disease or infection hosted by the celebrity you have chosen. This means lots and lots of close-ups of needles piercing flesh. One of the companies offering this service is the Lucas Clinic, and they have an exclusive contract with superstar Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon); employee Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) collects blood from the very ill Ms. Geist for the clinic, but secretly injects himself with it. Turns out he is a malady mule who sells such covert ‘product’ to a literal ‘meat market’ run by Arvid (my main man, Joe Pingue). Yes, this place sells celeb-steaks, spectacularly vile-looking meat slabs created in the lab from celebrity cells.

As you might expect, March becomes quite ill himself, and when Geist apparently dies, it’s a race against the clock for him to survive. Jones puts in a great loopy performance through Antiviral’s running time; he gets progressively sicker, becoming sweaty, disoriented, throwing up blood. It’s quite something. We also get excellent supporting turns from Sheila McCarthy and Malcolm McDowell. It’s that rare film that is willing to plunge forward where most would back away, and its visual audacity is stunning to behold.

Possessor, if anything, impressed me to a greater degree still. Cronenberg seems like he got the message that Antiviral didn’t go far enough, because the followup is even more visually over the top. The story concerns an alternate 2008 wherein assassins can possess a person at a distance, and then carry out an assassination using their body; the assassin here is Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) and the man she possesses is Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott). The targets include John Parse (Sean Bean), whose character undergoes one of the more severe assaults I’ve ever seen depicted onscreen. I was watching the uncut version, and boy, is it ever uncut!

Like Syd March in Antiviral, Tasya Vos here is a character undergoing massive personal transformation. She is losing touch with her core personality by spending time in the heads of other people, and has to constantly rehearse her own reactions and statements, even with her own family. When Tate begins fighting back against Vos’ control, it gets increasingly ugly, culminating in a bloodbath. Look for Jennifer Jason Leigh in an important guest role. 

The two films compliment each other very nicely and would make an excellent body horror double bill, providing the viewer is up to the experience. There’s lots of neat touches linking the films too, allowing for a drinking game with a difference: take a shot every time a character puts something in their mouth, for example. Both movies suggest Brandon Cronenberg has something of an oral fetish. Finally, let me say how proud I am to see my tax dollars going to help make Canadian cinema of this caliber (both films have government funding).

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