Pain is essentially a thing of the past for some in David Cronenberg’s “Crimes of the Future,” a dense, gorgeous, and grotesque meditation on bodies, creation, and art. Suffering, however, is still alive and well as everyone grapples with the enormity of the fact that human evolution has “gone wrong.”
It may be more mystifying than illuminating when all is said and done, but it is certainly a uniquely captivating experience with wildly imaginative creations, interesting performances, challenging ideas, and one of the best scores of the year.
Cronenberg, whose name is forever destined and doomed to be mentioned any time any filmmaker attempts to put their spin on “body horror,” went viral for a comment in which he predicted that some people would walk out of this film within the first five minutes. He didn’t mean every audience, he’d go on to clarify, just a party-seeking festival audience who either wasn’t familiar with or didn’t care to be open to his work. Still, it’s the kind of provocative comment that seems like a dare and not one to take lightly from the man who made “The Fly,” “Crash” and “Videodrome.”
And, indeed, something quite disturbing does happen in the first five minutes. But the way he depicts the horrific deed is done with enough gravity to dispel any worries about it being there for exploitative shock value. It simply makes you intrigued about where this is all going. And it’s helped along by Howard Shore’s mournful, masterful score.
This is a world in which bodies are mutating. Viggo Mortensen, playing Saul Tenser, forms new and novel organs regularly. Instead of simply removing the uninvited guests at a hospital, he and his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux) have turned it into an opportunity for performance art. Invasive surgery and pain management have become things that individuals do themselves, with the help of custom, alien-like machines that hold and manipulate your body and anticipate pain.
Saul’s surgery, which Caprice performs, is a public spectacle, heavy with meaning and metaphor. His extracted organs become specimens for display.
And it’s not nearly as repulsive or punishing as it might sound — take it from this extremely squeamish critic who went in with an empty stomach, bracing for the absolute worst. It could have been pretty horrifying, too: There’s blood and scalpels, expectant flesh (Mortensen’s torso almost deserves a supporting credit), incisions galore, pulsating organs, gagging, drills, purple vomit, cloudy saliva and a man with ears all over his body performing a modern dance. But, like the first five minutes, “Crimes of the Future” does not seem to have been crafted to shock and disturb. Cheap thrills are for the newbies. Cronenberg has things he wants to say: About art, about pain, about self-sacrifice, about evolution, about creativity, about ethics, about sex and about beauty.
There is a lot of plot and conspiracy swirling around Caprice and Saul, including a secretive new government department called the National Organ Registry and the two weirdos (Kristen Stewart and Don McKellar) who work there. Stewart’s rule-abiding and small-voiced Timlin, whom Caprice calls “especially creepy,” becomes a lusty superfan after seeing their show. There are some strange technicians, played by Tanaya Beatty and Nadia Litz, and the grieving father (Scott Speedman) of a dead boy skulking around their shows, and a detective (Welket Bungué) adding a noir element to the proceedings.
While I’ll never fault a movie for having a lot on its mind, “Crimes of the Future” does also often feel like it’s about everything and nothing. It’s endlessly quotable and also hard to fully digest in one sitting.
“Crimes of the Future,” a Neon release in theaters Friday, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “strong, disturbing, violent content and grisly images, graphic nudity and some language.” Running time: 107 minutes. Three stars out of four.