“We tend to frame punishment in terms of prevention and correction,” says Brandon Cronenberg, director of the new film Infinity Pool. “But there is a mood when we talk about it that suggests what we really want is revenge.”
In the movie, Alexander Skarsgärd plays James, a writer on vacation who accidentally hits and kills a citizen while drunk driving on the fictional island of La Tolqa. It happens outside the resort James is visiting, so he’s subject to the island’s death penalty. A detective tells him a double (the movie’s word for clone) can be executed in his place — if James can afford it.
When he pays for the doubling, Infinity Pool unsnarls its violence and hedonism.
Cronenberg winds Infinity Pool with barbed wire. The movie questions if human desire for justice masks bloodlust and revenge, and runs straight to the deep end, led by Gabi, played by Mia Goth. Gabi is a fan of James’ writing, and tangles him in a web of desire and envy, because the out-of-work writer refuses to say no to anyone with money and power.
MovieMaker spoke with Brandon Cronenberg at Sundance about his ode to crime and punishment. “We feel on a basic, emotional level that someone has to be punished if they’ve done wrong,” said Cronenberg, who takes his premise to its most violent conclusion. He also talks about his concern that audiences weren’t finding the humor in Infinity Pool, and why he thinks the MPA’s NC-17 rating is “punitive” and “de facto censorship.”
Joshua Encinias: Infinity Pool is a vicious cycle of crime and punished, but is also asks if the punishment is a new crime in itself. Will you talk about the ideas about punishment in the movie?
Brandon Cronenberg: We feel, on some level, that punishment isn’t really about pragmatic consequences that shape society. We feel on a basic, emotional level that someone has to be punished if they’ve done wrong for things to be made right. I think that is kind of grotesque, but also very natural to our discussion of punishment.
So the idea in Infinity Pool’s slightly skewed dream world is on this island, as long as someone thinks that one is guilty of the crime, that’s enough for them to be guilty and to punish them by killing them. Whether the person being punished did the crime or only has memories of the crime, that’s enough to satisfy the La Tolqa’s society.
Joshua Encinias: Although a character in the movie commits a civic crime, the punishment looks a more like a religious sacrifice.
Brandon Cronenberg: It’s funny, some of it ended up taking on a little flavor of Christianity, especially with the imagery of the execution. That wasn’t really what I had in mind when I was writing, but a Christ vibe crept into some of the executions, ultimately.
I was more interested in the philosophy of personal identity, which is a tradition that deals with what makes a person a person, what makes a person a distinct entity that’s continuous throughout time. There’s a long history of thought experiments dealing with doubling, and asking “Would you be you if there was a second you?”
Joshua Encinias: I saw Infinity Pool at an AMC theater and it was crazy to realize that we live in a time where your movie and Left Behind: Rise of the Antichrist can open across the country on the same day.
Brandon Cronenberg: Which of those is the more frightening film? It’s great, honestly. Infinity Pool, obviously, in some ways, is an extreme film. I think it opened wide because I intended for it to be somewhat funny and it has two big stars in it. So it’s a mashup of graphic genre tradition with something that might be a bit more mainstream.
Or it could just be the state of theatrical right now. I mean, everyone’s trying to figure out how to do theaters again. I’m sure that’s shaking up the industry in a way that that could potentially be positive. I’m not fundamentally against people watching Marvel films, but I really do think the theatrical industry starts to stagnate when you just have these very same-y blockbusters and no room for indie films.
Infinity Pool Is Funny
Joshua Encinias: I’m glad you brought up the movie’s humor, because while watching, I kept asking myself, “Am I supposed to be laughing this much?” Especially a scene at the end.
Brandon Cronenberg: That’s the ideal response, so I’m glad that you felt that way. When you’re editing a film, at a certain point, you start to show the movie to people you know, and show other filmmakers and start to show groups of people who have no exposure to the script or the material, to see where it’s at. And we were getting almost no laughs in those screenings.
People were responding to the film, but they weren’t laughing, and so I thought, “We’re in big trouble if no one’s laughing.” But at Sundance, people seemed to be laughing at the right places and it was a relief for me. Even though it’s not a straight comedy, it’s definitely intended to be funny.
Joshua Encinias: Your movie is obviously very different from The Menu or Triangle of Sadness, but there’s something in the water right now making people want to see the rich suffer in movies. Why is that?
Brandon Cronenberg: I know from a film journalism perspective you’re looking for those kinds of patterns. So it’s tempting to say it’s because of the the alarming economic divide and the degree to which that’s increasing. Especially after the pandemic with how much people are frustrated and anxious about the future for financial reasons.
That could very well be the context that’s fueling the success of movies like The Menu or shows like White Lotus. But the thing is, film development moves at such a glacial pace that there’s sort of no way to time it like that. I started doing the initial writing that led to Infinity Pool as far back as 2014 or earlier. So there was no way when I started down that path to judge the mood of 2023.
There was definitely no way to know that I was going to be part of this wave of films. Sometimes it just happens, sometimes the industry just syncs up in a certain way. Maybe it’s because of turmoil that was already brewing that far back, but at the same time, people suffering economically and art skewering the ultra wealthy is kind of a perennial thing.
Brandon Cronenberg on Ratings
Joshua Encinias: When I read the New York Times story about Infinity Pool securing an R rating because you cut two scenes that show male genitals, I remembered what a friend from a indie distributor told me: They release a lot of gay movies and many of them can’t be sold or rented on iTunes because Apple doesn’t allow movies with male nudity. Why do you think that’s such a difficult thing for American gatekeepers?
Brandon Cronenberg: An erect penis is the only objective violation of MPA rules, as far as I know. They’ll say, “Oh no, erect penis? That’s out.” But otherwise their judgement is based on a vague feeling about what they think parents would rate a movie. I think that is hugely disturbing.
I’m sure it comes from religious conservatism. Why are we so uptight about sex, especially in North America? In the U.K., it’s historically been the opposite. They’re a bit more loose about sex and nudity, but violence, especially in the ’80s, was something they really clamped down on hard. To me, it makes no sense.
We’re dealing with our naked bodies constantly and sex is so essential to who we are as people. Sex is what creates us, sex is what drives us. I think it says something hugely perverse about people and about our culture that penises are such a big deal in film censorship.
Joshua Encinias: How would you feel if your back and forth with the MPA helped create a new rating between R and NC -17?
Brandon Cronenberg: It would be great if that helps push it forward, because the NC-17 rating doesn’t work and the MPA know it. It was a rebranding of the X rating that was meant to fix this problem by eliminating the stigma surrounding films that are made specifically for adults. You could have films for adults that weren’t associated with porn, basically. When NC-17 was created,
I think Warner Bros. immediately said they’ll never release an NC-17 film, then theaters said they’re not going to show NC-17 films either, so it just became X again. I think that’s really bad. We should be able to make films for adults and view them. The NC-17 rating is so punitive in the States. It’s a de facto censorship, which is a huge problem.
Joshua Encinias: The rating system for movies and TV on streaming makes it even more confusing.
Brandon Cronenberg: People are exposed to this kind of imagery all the time now in mainstream, Emmy award-winning television. That’s because in streaming, you don’t have the same problem. If your show gets a mature rating it doesn’t affect distribution. Even in the context of streaming, where it’s much easier for parents to decide whether they want their kids to see something or not, you’re not punished for creating content for adults.
I’m talking about Game of Thrones and The Boys, shows that have scenes that would be NC-17 in theatrical, and yet, they’re completely mainstream commercial series that everybody watches. So for Infinity Pool to be a problem for theatrical, but not for streaming, really makes theatrical seem out of touch at a time when theaters are really fighting to remain relevant. I think it’s definitely urgent for the MPA to fix that problem because it’s driving people away from theaters.
Infinity Pool, directed by Brandon Cronenberg, is now in theaters.