Dir: Brandon Cronenberg
Star: Alexander Skarsgård, Mia Goth, Cleopatra Coleman, Jalil Lespert
Remember, kids: Just Say No. I’m not entirely sure to what. It might be drugs. It could possibly be “Making friends with strange couples on holiday” (see also: Do Not Disturb). However, I think the correct answer is, Just Say No to Mia Goth. Between this and Pearl, hanging around with her never seems to end well. The poor unfortunate to learn so in this moral fable is James Foster (Skarsgård), a largely failed writer, on holiday in an all-inclusive resort with his rich wife, Em (Coleman). He meets Gabi (Goth), a fan of his work, and her husband Alban (Lespert), but a trip outside the safe confines of the complex turns deadly when James mows down a local farmer while driving drunk.
He’s sentenced to die at the hands of this victim’s son, except this is where it gets Cronenbergian. For this nation has a “Get out of jail free” alternative. Pay them a wodge of cash, and they’ll construct a clone, identical to you in every respect, including memories, who will take the punishment in your place. James goes through the process, watching “himself” be killed. He then discovers Gabi is part of a group of rich crime tourists, who visit the resort every summer to engage in savage crimes, knowing they can just buy their way out, and have the punishment inflicted on their doubles. James gradually becomes part of the cult, losing himself in a slew of drugs, orgies and violence, until he realizes he’s in danger of losing his identity entirely.
The first half of this is great, virtually as good as anything Cronenberg Sr. has delivered. There’s a definite air of Videodrome to it, with a man tip-toeing into the shallows of depravity, only to find himself manipulated and unable to withdraw when the waters get too deep. Yet there are also elements which feel like this could be an adaptation of a story by Philip K, Dick, with questions about identity. For instance, how does James know he is the “real” version of himself? That could have been executed, leaving him the clone; if so, does that matter? Who are “you”? Are you just a combination of your flesh and your memories, or is there more to it?
This is all told with no punches being pulled, and some stomach-churning violence – James’s execution (top) feels excruciatingly drawn-out. It’s a pace that eventually proves unsustainable, and the second half becomes more predictable, with Cronenberg largely waving harsh reality off, in favour of less effective dream/drug sequences. Goth, once again, is enormously creepy and effective, in particular the scene where Gabi is sprawled across a car bonnet, berating James with those harsh realities, that he simply isn’t good enough to join their clique. That the wealthy can get away with anything should not exactly be news. However, rarely has it ever been depicted in such an in-your-face matter, and there’s no questioning its abrasive effectiveness.