Few filmmakers slither under the skin and directly into the head as mercilessly as David Cronenberg. For decades, he has been unsettling audiences, derailing genre expectations and expanding the limits of big-screen entertainment with exploding heads, gasping wounds and desiring, suffering, metamorphosing bodies. A modern-day augur, he opens up characters — psychically and physically — with a detached cool and scalpel-like cinematic technique, exploring what lies (and festers) inside as he divines prophetic meaning.
His latest, “Crimes of the Future,” is very tough and creepy, yet improbably relaxed; it’s a low-key dispatch from the end of the world. Set in an indeterminate future, it centers on a pair of artists — Viggo Mortensen as Saul, Léa Seydoux as Caprice — who mount surgeries as performances. With Saul lying supine in a biomorphic apparatus as viewers gaze from the sidelines, Caprice — using a multicolored controller — delicately probes Saul’s viscera, removing mysterious new organs that have grown inside his body. The audience members are quiet, attentive, respectful (moviegoers might yelp); for his part, Saul looks ecstatic.
The movie takes place in a depopulated waterfront city where the carcasses of rusted, barnacle-covered ships languish on the shore. There, in shadowy streets and derelict buildings, men and women roam, often without apparent purpose, as if heavily medicated or perhaps blasted by that collective devastation called reality. There’s a disconcerting, characteristically Cronenbergian lack of affect to most of them — few experience pain anymore — even when they’re carving one another up in dark corners or in performances. Times have changed, but the human appetite for violence and spectacle remain intact.
The story emerges incrementally in scenes that seem to drift even as they lock into place. In between performances and shoptalk, Saul and Caprice are drawn into overlapping intrigues involving a dead child and an inner-beauty pageant. An amusing Kristen Stewart shows up with Don McKellar in a decrepit office that once could have been used by Philip Marlowe, but now has the disquieting words “National Organ Registry” inscribed on the front door. There’s also a cop (Welket Bungué) who skulks around with Saul in the shadows, where the dead child’s father (Scott Speedman) lurks enigmatically.
For the most part, the world in “Crimes of the Future” resembles what you imagine everyday life might look like in a not-too-distant future, one defined by need, decay, violence, extreme entertainment and environmental catastrophes of our own wretched making. It is terrible, and eerily familiar. But Cronenberg doesn’t pass judgment on it or shake his fist at the sky. Instead, with visual precision, arid humor, restrained melancholia and a wildly inventive vision of tomorrow that puts those of most movie futurists to shame, he reveals a world that can be agony to look at, exposing its pulpy innards much like Caprice opens up Saul.
Mortensen and Seydoux are the conjoined heart and soul of “Crimes of the Future,” and they imbue the movie with waves of feeling, appreciably warming the overall chill. His eyebrows seemingly shaved and face often obscured by a scarf, Saul presents a curious figure, one who’s at once an artist, ninja and religious ascetic. Although his hands and feet look undamaged, the placement of the cables on his appendages — as well as the many cuts that Caprice makes on his body during their performances — evoke stigmata, the wounds of the crucified Christ. And Saul does suffer, clearly, but for whom? For him, Caprice, us?
“Crimes of the Future” is about a lot of things, including desire and death, pain and pleasure, transformation and transcendence. Saul is its centerpiece. You first see him at home in bed, a structure that hangs from the ceiling like a suspended cradle. It’s striking, but what really catches the eye are the bed’s cables, medical tubing that look like elephant trunks and are attached to Saul’s pale, bare hands and feet. The bottom of each cable resembles a small webbed hand, a distinctly anthropomorphic vision that makes it seem as if he were being cared for by an extraterrestrial nanny.
The attentiveness of Saul’s care, including from Caprice, makes a painful contrast with the horrific indifference shown to the movie’s one child (Sotiris Siozos). “Crimes of the Future” begins with the murder of this child; it’s a visceral, distressing jolt that will drive at least some moviegoers out of the theaters. Opening a story with a shock of violence is an obvious way to kick-start events, create intrigue, hook the audience. We are used to it. The murder of a child, though, is more unsettling than most screen violence. That’s partly because of its horror, but also because — while movies show us many ghastly things — they like to package violence, sex it up, make it cinematic. They resist showing us at our real and abject worst.
In strictly functional terms, the murder serves as a red flag — a kind of trigger warning for the movie audience — an announcement of intent or at least narrative limits. Cronenberg is, I think, telegraphing what kind of movie you’re about to watch: He will not be taking any prisoners or blunting the story’s edges. The murder is genuinely awful and it rocks you to the core, creating a low, unwavering thrum of deep unease that remains intact through the disparate narrative turns and tone shifts. Most movies that deploy violence tidy it up with empty outrage and vacuous moralizing; here, the violence haunts you.
In its themes, body work and convulsions of violence, “Crimes of the Future” evokes some of Cronenberg’s other films, notably “Videodrome,” a shocker about (among other things) a man who loses his mind. This new movie feels more melancholic than many of the earlier ones, though perhaps I’m the one who’s changed. Once again, people are evolving and devolving, mutating into something familiar yet also something different and terrifying. Yet despite the morbid laughs and the beatific smile that can light up Saul’s face like that of St. Teresa of Ávila, “Crimes of the Future” feels like a requiem. Cronenberg has always been a diagnostician of the human condition; here, he also feels a lot like a mortician.
Crimes of the Future
Rated R for filicide, surgeries and power-drill violence. Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes. In theaters.
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