Where does Brandon Cronenberg‘s Infinity Pool take place? Yes, the marketing materials say it’s an “isolated island resort,” and that’s certainly the case, but where more generally is a question that hovers over the thriller debuting at the Sundance Film Festival. The action happens in a country that doesn’t exist called Li Tolga in a world that’s not exactly our own. The effect is certainly disconcerting—and it’s intended as such—but as the plot goes on you start to wonder if it isn’t just hollow artifice. 

Infinity Pool, which will hit theaters on January 27, starts off as a parable that is incredibly on trend these days: A beautiful, wealthy couple grapples with their insecurities in a stunning locale. But then, true to form for any member of the Cronenberg family, it swerves into something more intangibly horrifying. The nightmare that unfolds is certainly effective. At the same time, there’s an emptiness at the movie’s core. 

Alexander Skarsgård, a willing participant in the experiments of boundary-pushing directors, is James Foster, an author whose last book was a flop. He is on a vacation with his rich wife Em, played by Cleopatra Coleman. Their relationship is chilly. He’s in a rut; she provides for him as a publishing house heiress. The resort where they are staying is an entire city within this fictional region, which we are told is overrun by crime and an unforgiving justice system. Guests are supposed to stay within the gates of their paradise which includes a nightclub and a Chinese restaurant. 

It’s in the confines of this manufactured fun that James and Em encounter the fun-loving Gabi (reigning scream queen Mia Goth) and Alban (Jalil Lespert), who coax them to sneak out for an afternoon on a secluded beach with a car borrowed from one of the employees. On the way back from their drunken excursion the vehicle hits a local and the foursome is taken into custody. James, being the driver, is held responsible, and he is offered a way to pay for his crimes. For a fee, he will be cloned and then forced to watch his doppelganger, screaming, get executed. 

Instead of being horrified, James is turned on, and then the hedonism begins. Suddenly, offered the opportunity to commit atrocities with just financial repercussions—or so he thinks—James is drawn into an underworld of vacationers who use this loophole to their advantage. 

Always willing to subvert his Adonis-like looks, Skarsgård is the ideal actor to play a man so filled with self-loathing that he will debase himself for any feeling of power. James’ sudden jolt of testosterone makes Skarsgård puff up, and we watch as he physically shrinks as he realizes he’s in further and further over his head. Hot off her meme-generating performance in Ti West‘s Pearl, Goth once again unleashes a feral, unpredictable energy that makes her thrilling to watch. In one early moment, Gabi demonstrates her skills as an actress, Goth morphing before our eyes into a coquettish, frustrated housewife from an infomercial. Later, she’s screaming her head off on the top of a car. It’s entrancing. The other actors, including Coleman, are given little to do, forced to play either James’ cheerleaders or obstacles. 

Cronenberg is adept at merging the gorgeous and disgusting, which eventually coalesces into a hallucinatory orgy scene. But the unsavory qualities of Infinity Pool extend beyond the body horror into areas that feel less intentional and more simply underdeveloped. While Cronenberg is clearly playing with established tropes, the barbaric foreign land is just that, complete with grotesque masks that are part of the culture’s tradition. The white rampaging tourists are, yes, the villains here, but the vagueness of the landscape allows Cronenberg to get away with not having to think too hard about the implications of his story. (I can’t stop thinking about a cutaway shot of men in traditional Hasidic Jewish garb with exaggerated prosthetic noses, that seems to serve no purpose but to provoke.) 

After all the madness, Cronenberg hits on an ending that leaves James’ soul precariously hanging in the balance. It’s an evocative image that resonates long after you’ve finished watching, but the more you pick at this fable, the more it starts to come apart. 

Esther Zuckerman

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