In the world of Antiviral, ordinary people pay top dollar to have high-tech clinics infect them with the same bugs celebrities have contracted. Caleb Landry Jones plays one clinic’s top salesmen: a soft-spoken go-getter able to sell herpes and the flu to otherwise-healthy folks who want to feel closer to their favorite stars. Jones is also moonlighting as a pirate, smuggling viruses out of his workplace inside his own body, to sell on the black market. Then news breaks that one of the clinic’s top starlets has died, and suddenly Jones is in demand, hunted for the now-limited-edition microscopic organisms swimming around in his bloodstream.
Antiviral’s focus on human bodies as mechanisms and businessmen as amoral ravagers may sound like something David Cronenberg could’ve come up with, and there’s a good reason for that: Antiviral was written and directed by Cronenberg’s son Brandon, who’s obviously absorbed a lot from his father’s movies, or perhaps just from dinner-table conversations about how biology shapes the human experience. Subject matter aside, though, Antiviral doesn’t feel like a David Cronenberg film. Some hallucinatory moments resemble Videodrome and Naked Lunch—in particular, one dream sequence in which Jones imagines himself with thick metal cables protruding from his arms—but for this movie, at least, Brandon Cronenberg’s visual style is sparer, and his tone dryer. For all its preoccupation with disease, Antiviral isn’t especially visceral. The movie can be repulsive at times, but Cronenberg is more interested in ideas than in blood and guts.
Still, those ideas are something. Antiviral is oddly lacking in urgency, for a movie about dying people and the corporate raiders looking to exploit them, but it’s rarely tedious, because Cronenberg keeps coming up with clever new details of Antiviral’s milieu, such as a butcher shop that sells genetically engineered slabs of meat grown from celebrity muscle cells, and a contest that allows winners to infect a celebrity with their next cold. Cronenberg doesn’t say anything too profound about a culture of celebrity obsession—beyond a comment by Jones’ boss that celebrity is “a collaboration that we choose to take part in”—but Antiviral does develop an eerie beauty, as its characters ruminate on how decay gives everything from flowers to human faces their unique, often enviable qualities.