CALEB LANDRY JONES. You’ve probably been seeing that name associated with a lot of roles lately, from the psychotic brother of Allison Williams character in Jordan Peele’s brilliant directorial debut GET OUT, to a conflicted, drug-addicted boyfriend in David Lynch’s revisit to TWIN PEAKS. His first role should have been an indication of things to come, as one of the kids on bikes who spots a wounded Javier Bardem in The Coen Brothers’ unsettling opus, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. But it is a name you’re going to be seeing a lot more of, and revisiting his past work is a revelation about the reasons why.
One good picture to make the case is a film he did back in 2012 with Brandon Cronenberg, (and yes, he is the son of THAT Cronenberg), called ANTIVIRAL. The movie is exactly what one would expect from the progeny of one of the world’s most well-known specialists in sociopolitical intrigue, psychological disorder and deep explorations, (TOO deep for some people) into real and imagined “body horror.” Not a warm and fuzzy film by any means, anymore than anything in the body of work similarly created by David, Brandon has made, along with Jones and his remarkable cast and crew, one of those films that challenges the mindset of horror movie buffs, who are completely convinced that the horror genre has lost its ability to present anything possessing any kind of originality. ANTIVIRAL’s main concern is not with trying to be original as possible. Its aim – at which it succeeds immensely – is to make you uncomfortable, push a lot of buttons and show you that if you think the world we live in has just gotten too weird, we haven’t yet reached the apex of that growing surreality.
ANTIVIRAL features Jones as Syd March, a man engaged in the weirdest profession possible, which absolutely matches the not-inconceivably bizarre world in which he plies his trade. At a time in the not-at-all distant future, the public obsession with celebrity has gone beyond the fever pitch level. Yes, every whimper, laugh, fart and squeak a celeb makes is still being covered in broadcast and print media 24/7, but things have gone way beyond rummaging through a famous person’s garbage, or even keeping a sample of a music group member’s stool in an amulet worn around one’s neck. (What, you didn’t see PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT?)
Now there are butcher shops that specialize in growing meat slabs from the stem cells of celebrities, to be bought and consumed by their adoring fans. And going even further beyond the pale, there are also clinics that specialize not in curing diseases, but inflicting them upon a more-than-eager clientele, who will pay top dollar to companies that will infect them with sicknesses obtained directly from the stars they idolize.
Syd works for one such firm, the Lucas Clinic, a posh emporium for “star germs” created and run by Dorian Lucas, (NICHOLAS CAMPBELL of SPIDER-MAN and THE HITCHHIKER series.) It’s Syd’s job to direct clients in selecting only the best and most potent pathogens from their favorite media gods and goddesses. His ‘side job’, unbeknownst to his employer is to also steal these viruses by smuggling them out in his own body, then removing the copyright and security protections, (yes, even VIRUSES have that now), and selling them on the black market.
The provider of one of the most sought-after series of germs to the Lucas Clinic is one Hannah Geist (SARAH GADON from the senior Cronenberg’s A DANGEROUS METHOD), and when news gets out that she is gravely ill, Syd is sent to collect the specimen. He does, but when he treats this sample as he does all the others, injecting himself with it for the purpose of reselling it to the highest bidder, what he gets, physically, mentally and emotionally is a lot more than he bargained for.
First of all, Jones completely disappears into the role. So much so, that it becomes hard to believe that he’s NOT just playing March, which is a compliment to any actor. But here it’s well-deserved, especially when he can hold his own in scenes with the always-dependable MALCOLM MCDOWELL, here playing Dr. Abendroth, a physician who steps in to help Syd with his Hannah Geist problem, once things start to get out of his control.
Besides his unusual look, his sense of physicality and anxious, jittery energy are perfect, as is his remarkable way of channeling it into a smooth, calming persuasiveness that he requires to sell the Lucas Clinic clients on selecting only the most unique of germs to have injected into their bodies. It’s a unique and riveting portrayal in a film that is equally so, and it’s not hard to imagine him tackling even more challenging fare in the future, and getting accolades for it very similar to the critical reaction to his turn in this film.
Though she has little dialogue, Sarah Gadon’s performance is equally as important and as marvelous. Hannah Geist’s presence permeates every frame, even when she’s not physically present, and her breathtaking beauty and vulnerability – whether genuine or ‘acted’ as the character – defines her and confirms why so many people are completely obsessed with her, as Syd eventually becomes as well, even when it’s against his nature (or best interests) to do so.
Brandon Cronenberg has certainly inherited his dad’s storytelling sense, as well as his bent to examine the darker underpinnings of society with the cinematic version of an electron microscope. The blackly-humored concepts of celebrities literally being purchased and consumed as meat products, as well as the whole sicknesses-for-sale angle is a pointed commentary of how important the ‘cult of personality’ has become to the world-at-large, and how that obsessive fascination could easily send us careening into a place where ANTIVIRAL becomes more prescient than just a mere blend of sci-fi tinged horror.
And special kudos have to go out to cinematographer Karim Hussein, for capturing so well the dichotomy of both the spartan, almost antiseptic look of some sets and the glamour of others, and how they clash with the presence of sickness, death and decay, not just of the body, but in some cases, of the soul as well.
It’s shameful that ANTIVIRAL doesn’t have a wider audience, but with Jones still cranking out recent good work, most notably in Martin McDonagh’s THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, that could be about to change, as more curious film lovers reach back to revisit his previous roles in this and other films.
ANTIVIRAL rates four-out-of-five stars from this reviewer.