David Cronenberg is undeniably known for being a pioneering storyteller in the world of body horror. In fact, odds are, if you have a favorite Cronenberg film, it’s likely an example of body horror. Whether it has been a prime focus or just an element in his work (The Fly probably being the most successful of his outings), it’s largely what the man is known for, cinematically. After a period away from the genre, he’s returned with Crimes of the Future, a movie that sees him dipping his toes back into the ground he helped pave. While it lacks the prestige and awards friendliness of something like Eastern Promises or A History of Violence, he’s not fully trying to gross you out. In that way, the flick plays like a re-introduction for Cronenberg to body horror. Depending on how that sounds to you, that’s a fair assumption of how you’ll react to this one.
Crimes of the Future presents Cronenberg again mixing gore and social commentary, but it’s not quite as out there as the premise would suggest. Any of the speculation about how there would be outrage and walkouts during the Cannes Film Festival were overblown. The finale has something potentially upsetting, but it’s not nearly as extreme as you’ve been prepped for. To that end, keep your expectations in check.
Taking place in a world somewhat recognizable as our own but with a dystopian/synthetic bent, we learn that this evolution is having an unusual effect on humanity. Over the years, humans have begun to evolve, growing new and previously unheard of organs. In this world, Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) is a noted performance artist, staging elaborate showcases where his lover and partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux) removes these extra organs from his body. They have a devoted following, one that’s now joined by two government operatives in Timlin (Kristen Stewart) and Whippet (Don McKellar), even if they’re supposed to be working on regulating these organs. In fact, both of them are interested in Saul for very different reasons.
As Saul navigates plans for a new show and dealing with the government agency, he’s approached by Lang Daughtery (Scott Speedman). The leader of an underground subculture that embraces synthetics and this next stage of humanity, Lang has a proposition for Saul. He wants him to do something for his next exhibition that would be a whole new frontier. He and Caprice consider the offer, while other factors I won’t get into here come into play. This performance would be his most shocking yet, but it would come at a cost that he’s not sure he’s willing to pay.
No one can ever claim that Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux, and Kristen Stewart aren’t committed to this material. They aren’t always supported as well as they could be by the script, but they’re doing solid work. Mortensen has to a lot of pained writhing, which he certainly pulls off, but it’s hard not to look at his black cloak and wonder if he’s auditioning to play Jigsaw in a new Saw flick. Still, this is the weirdest that Mortensen has gotten with Cronenberg. Stewart is a bit wasted, though she also embraces getting to be a little odd in the film. Seydoux fares the best, as her character has the most evolved arc in the movie. Mortensen and Seydoux do have strong chemistry, which helps elevate the screenplay a bit. In addition to Don McKellar, supporting players include Tanaya Beatty, Jason Bitter, Welket Bungué, Ephie Kantza, Lihi Kornowski, Nadia Litz, and more.
Filmmaker David Cronenberg is playing around with this genre again, to be sure, though it’s almost a dipping of his directorial toe in the waters. An ominous score by Howard Shore makes things always seem like the other shoe could drop at any time, though this is decidedly a slow burn. At the same time, Crimes of the Future feels rushed with some of its signature bizarre technology. There’s some mythology and world-building, but not enough to give you that extra bit of added investment. Cronenberg’s visuals are on point, captured by cinematographer Douglas Koch, but the story is not a cut above.
Crimes of the Future will work best for those who have been waiting for Cronenberg to play in the body horror realm again. If you’re not into that sort of thing, it’s going to seem too gnarly, too silly, and potentially too off-putting. On the flip-side, fans may wish it was a little more extreme. That may still be to come for him next time around, but even so, Cronenberg the body horror master is back.