David Cronenberg’s New Film Returns to the Dread Zone

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Man looks up at woman leaning over him, faces close
Viggo Mortensen and Léa Seydoux in 'Crimes of the Future.' (Courtesy NEON)

There’s a chilling lack of oxygen in David Cronenberg’s new film Crimes of the Future. The director of The Fly (1986) and Naked Lunch (1991) places the actors in a series of tomblike airless rooms. There are no windows because, in this vision of the future, no view is worth taking in. Sunshine blinds rather than warms the souls of these seaside residents. Every interior wall is rotting and worn down. The ocean is a corrosive force advancing the city’s turn to decay. It’s as if Cronenberg has, with his characteristic morbidity, created the visual equivalent of Albert Camus’ city of Oran, from the 1947 novel The Plague.

Saul (Viggo Mortensen), the director’s antihero, gasps for breath while he’s sleeping, while he’s talking, while he’s walking and while he’s eating. The relentlessness of his unnamed illness suggests that an enlightened era of medical cures is far behind us. To ease his body’s stressors, ghoulish, partially organic machines wrap themselves around Saul’s body. To help him eat, Cronenberg has reimagined a baby’s high chair as a skull-less, fleshy skeleton that rocks and spoon feeds Saul mush. His bed-cum-cradle, suspended from the ceiling, resembles an extracted uterus. 

Woman in red dress sits by man laying down in black hooded cloak, to right woman crouches in light blue outfit
Léa Seydoux, Viggo Mortensen and Kristen Stewart in 'Crimes of the Future.'
(Courtesy NEON)

Saul lives with the pristinely dressed Caprice (Léa Seydoux), who was a surgeon in a former life. Their relationship may contain elements of love and affection but they primarily work together as performance artists. In this universe, performance artists are idolized, the way that actors and reality stars are today. Each member of the audience brings their own camera to the show, to film every second, the director implies, so they can titillate their erogenous zones when they get back home. Largely unable to interact with each other, the crowd represents an exhausted collective unconscious that feels familiar. Is this the inevitable future that comes from obsessively archiving our experiences, instantly and infinitely, draining them of any meaning? 

In this nightmare realm, connection is only possible through pain. People “hook up” in public places with actual hooks. Cronenberg films multiple close-ups of background characters slicing into each other’s skins followed by orgasmic reaction shots. What separates Saul and Caprice from these ordinary citizens is their approach to surgery. Saul is a kind of mutant. He’s evolved with the ability to grow what are essentially vestigial organs. 

Their performances, and others we see by their peers, are atrocity exhibitions. Cronenberg has been documenting our moral decline from the equally surgical Dead Ringers (1988) to his more recent Maps of the Stars (2014). But Crimes of the Future suggests that the decline is behind us. The characters are suffering through the aftermath, where the psychic shrapnel of despair has permanently dislodged humane codes of shared conduct.

Woman touches man's face as if about to kiss
Kristen Stewart and Viggo Mortensen in 'Crimes of the Future.' (Courtesy NEON)

Cronenberg would like the audience to compare Saul’s mutations to the work of an artist. In particular to that of the director’s. Crimes of the Future is a portrait of an artist as an old man. Saul’s organ-birthing process—like a filmmaker inventing an alternate future—is straining his body. All the physical pleasures from the past now cause pain. 

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This is Cronenberg’s fourth film starring Mortensen and the sparest in terms of plot and character development. The actor is still a reliable avatar of masculine vulnerability, but his performance here doesn’t have much of an arc. Mortensen is buoyed, however, by Howard Shore’s synthed-up soundtrack, and his wardrobe. He’s dressed in the same black-hooded, medieval getup as the knight attempting to outwit Death in Ingmar Bergman’s allegorical film The Seventh Seal (1957). 

Man in black hooded cloak looks to left
Viggo Mortensen in 'Crimes of the Future.' (Courtesy NEON)

Despite Mortensen’t attire, death isn’t the antagonist for Cronenberg. Other people are. Like those louche commercials celebrating Las Vegas, unrestrained freedom is his equivalent of the seven deadly sins; or, the ne plus ultra culmination of them. One subplot in particular embodies this criminal sense of detachment from the repugnant behavior it depicts. It involves the profoundly upsetting death of a child, an aspect of Crimes of the Future that left a fixed feeling of dread in my stomach. Underdeveloped and under-explained, that storyline is the film’s own vestigial organ: it should have been cut out.

‘Crimes of the Future’ opens in Bay Area theaters on Friday, June 3.