Crimes of the Future opens with a young boy walking into his bathroom and eating a plastic wastepaper basket. This pretty much establishes that David Cronenberg is going to give you a wild ride. The director has been behind many of the best body-horror movies ever made, including Shivers, Scanners, The Fly and Videodrome, but hasn't worked in the genre for two decades. Meanwhile, son Brandon proved to be a chip off the old block with his effort, Possessor. Now the elder Cronenberg returns to form with a complex, disturbing work that left me spellbound.
The story is set sometime in the future, where an unspecified force has caused the evolution of human bodies. Most individuals no longer feel traditional pleasure or pain, and there are no more infections, so people perform random surgical acts on each other, often as a form of eroticism. (One person refers to it as “desktop surgery.”) Then there are folks like performance artist Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen). His body spontaneously creates new vestigial organs, which his partner Caprice (Lea Seydoux) removes during their live shows.
Saul gets into some bizarre predicaments as a result of his situation. Timlin (Kristen Stewart) is a bureaucrat with the National Organ Registry, a government office devoted to keeping track of the weird stuff people grow on their insides. She becomes infatuated by Saul's work, even telling him, "surgery is the new sex." Detective Cope (Welket Bungue) seeks his collaboration in infiltrating a radical evolutionary group. He's also visited by Lang (Scott Speedman), a guy who wants him to perform a public autopsy on his dead son, for reasons that shouldn't be divulged here.
In his 1996 film Crash, Cronenberg looked at characters who became sexually aroused by car accidents and injuries that accompany them. With Crimes of the Future, he melds sex and surgical procedures. You need an adventurous spirit to appreciate this movie. It has a scene where a woman rips open the deep wound on a man's stomach and performs oral sex on it. There's a guy whose eyes and mouth are sewn shut, and ears have grown all over his body. Saul sleeps in a contraption that looks like an upside-down horseshoe crab. Closeups of scalpels cutting into human flesh are as frequent as the dinosaurs in Jurassic World: Dominion. The film also has lots and lots of nudity. It's meant to be uncomfortable to watch because Cronenberg is interested in exploring what might happen if our bodies did evolve as a result of ecological, biochemical, or other conditions. Being provocative is the name of the game.
Although undeniably extreme, the movie works because Cronenberg is in complete control. Questions he raises get you thinking about what the next step in the evolutionary ladder might be. When the climate is changing in potentially catastrophic ways and the threat of chemical weapons looms, a possibility exists that they -- or something else -- could affect negative change in our world. What will happen if we're exposed to harmful elements? What will our bodies do if they have to compensate for massive changes in the Earth? Putting those thoughts into a film noir tale allows them to seep into our minds more easily.
Crimes of the Future additionally captivates because of the style its director brings. All the disgusting surgical stuff is photographed in an ironically beautiful manner to infer how sexy the characters find it. Atmospheric cinematography adds to the impact, as does Howard Shore's moody musical score. The actors provide a human factor. Mortensen is quietly powerful as a man trying to make peace with the fact that his body is rebelling against him. Seydoux hits the right note as Caprice, playing her as a woman who finds strength and confidence as a practitioner of surgery, yet also realizes there's a line that shouldn't be crossed. Stewart, meanwhile, gives a magnificently weird turn as Timlin, a jittery figure whose timid exterior can barely suppress how hot she gets by seeing flesh cut open.
The film doesn't have a particularly straightforward plot, but that's part of the appeal, as well. From scene to scene, I didn't know where the story was going to take me -- an experience that's all too rare in the age of endless IP-based movies. And where it did take me was usually startling. Sometimes it's good to be shocked by art. Doing so is a reminder that you can feel things deeply. Crimes of the Future's inhabitants have lost much of that ability, so they find it where they can, even in acts that may seem depraved. We're luckier than they are.
out of four
Crimes of the Future is rated R for strong disturbing violent content and grisly images, graphic nudity and some language. The running time is 1 hour and 47 minutes.