Brandon Cronenberg’s latest has little faith in the wealthy, or anyone.
A pair of disaffected Americans are on vacation at an island resort within a culture that is distant from their own. Their relationship seems to be on the rocks, and it is disrupted further by their interactions with other tourists at the resort, who attempt to push the limits of what they can get away with. Through their experiences, the husband take a hard look at his own place in the socio-economic ecosystems that tourism allows, and questions his impact on the social hierarchy. But as privilege and power prove inescapable, he finds himself drawn further into destructive decisions.
You would be excused for thinking this sounds like the point of a season of White Lotus from showrunner Mike White. But in this case, the tale is in the hands of a far more menacing author: writer-director Brandon Cronenberg in his new film Infinity Pool. While White’s exploration of wealth and privilege and its dynamics in the world of international tourism certainly has its axes to grind, it also has a sort of central humanity to its characters; these are people who have found themselves in positions of power, but they certainly have their own pains to sympathize with. Cronenberg takes those concepts, discards much of the sympathy, and explodes them out to their logical (if extreme) conclusions. By adding sci-fi elements as well as body-obsessive horror that has long been the trademark of father David Cronenberg, Infinity Pool takes an unflinching look at the detached debauchery that wealth and privilege can provide.
The central character in Infinity Pool is James Foster (Alexander Skarsgård), an author who has struggled for six years to find inspiration for his next book. He travels to the fictional island of La Tolqa with his wife, Em (Cleopatra Coleman), in hopes of finding that inspiration, but remains adrift and uncertain — at least until he meets Gabi (Mia Goth, establishing herself as a modern horror queen), an effusive fan who practically fawns over James. Gabi and her husband demand James’s attention, and he is only too eager to provide it to them. But after a hit-and-run incident, James finds himself charged with murder, the punishment for which demands his execution.
Luckily for James, the wealthy are provided another option at the right price: through a process that seems equal parts magic and science, a perfect clone can be created to take the place of the accused. The only catch is that you have to watch your clone’s execution. For James, the experience initially proves distressing but also liberating. He soon learns that not only has Gabi gone through this process before, but that there is a small cadre of others who have created something of a secret society. As James pulls further away from his wife, he finds himself being drawn more and more into Gabi’s orbit, especially as she pushes him to explore more and more debaucherous behavior where sex and violence become indistinguishable acts.
This is the heart of what Infinity Pool is invested in exploring: how wealth and privilege create a class of people who exist within a different world where consequences feel distant, and are thus liberated to explore any dark desire that might occur to them. Death becomes something of a joke, a mild trifle in the broader scheme of their existence. At one point, one of the survivors raises the question of whether they can be truly assured that they are not the clone, their original self actually slain. But another is quick to point out: Does it actually make a difference?
At the center of the film are two strong performances from Skarsgård and Goth, the former demonstrating someone who is descending into madness and unsure how far he’ll go, and the latter someone who has completely submitted to the id, the animalistic desires beneath her skin. Gabi constantly chides and prods at James to show her strength, which, in her estimation, is reflected in cruelty and sadism.
This is where Cronenberg’s observations diverge from White’s: White Lotus certainly takes a critical eye at its detached, privileged subjects, but it also sees them as people; Infinity Pool has no patience for that, and rather contextualizes the affluent as parasites, base animals who feed their most dangerous desires for pleasure. This depiction leaves little space for nuance, as Infinity Pool could hardly be described as subtle. As the film reaches its most distressing point, it leaves no space for interpretation—these characters are unrepentant animals, and the only thing that separates us is access to money. If we were able to have that wealth, we too would sink into the depths of that pool.
This nihilistic view won’t be for everyone, and it doesn’t help that Infinity Pool never provides a rope to grasp onto, no sense of greater faith in humanity to escape these baseline urges. Rather, Cronenberg presents an unflinching depiction of humanity’s ugliest truths, and doesn’t hold back. Much has been said of some of the most explicit sexual content of the film being edited for an R-rated release, but make no mistake, even in its modified form, Infinity Pool is unsettling in its depiction of what people are capable of—if only we were given the chance.