In “Infinity Pool,” what happens in Li Tolqa stays in Li Tolqa, an impoverished country where, if they’re rich enough, foreign guests can literally get away with murder. But that’s not the half of it. Visitors hold grotesque, drug-addled orgies at which their genitalia appear to morph before your eyes. The locals host sick rituals, too, wherein miscreants are cloned and then forced to witness their own executions. And then there are the macabre Li Tolqan skin masks, which suggest generations of inbreeding, or maybe they’re just the half-salvaged faces of botched doubling experiments.
It would all be quite shocking were the film signed by anyone other than Brandon Cronenberg, the demented son of “Scanners” director David Cronenberg. I’m sure he’s a perfectly nice guy in real life, but hoo boy, if you’ve seen “Antiviral” or “Possessor,” you know: The kind of images Kid Cronenberg cooks up can wedge their way into your subconscious and fester there for years to come. In so many ways, “Infinity Pool” is right on brand (transgressive shots of erections erupting out of vagina-like orifices, say, or someone breast-feeding Alexander Skarsgård). And yet, Dark Brandon seems to have gone off the deep end this time — which is precisely where a certain contingent of horror fans want him.
Think of “Infinity Pool” as a kind of extreme-horror, live-action version of the Eagles’ “Hotel California”: a cautionary tale of runaway Western decadence, set in and around a posh resort where carefree tourists can check in any time they like, but … you know the rest. Failed novelist James Foster (a courageous Skarsgård, looking more like his father than ever) blends in nicely there, a more chiseled variation on the character Ralph Fiennes played in last year’s comparably dark guilty-conscience satire “The Forgiven.” James wasn’t born rich, but married into it, and wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman) seems happy to foot the bill for trips like this, hoping it will break him out of his writer’s block.
There in their beachside paradise, James and Em can pretend all is well in their lives. But there are clues — giant red flags, really, in the form of armed guards, barbed wire and dire warnings about not stepping foot off the resort — that, well, this could be Heaven or this could be Hell. Enter scream queen Mia Goth (“Pearl”), who plays aggressively friendly temptress Gabi, a trophy wife who’s been coming to Li Tolqa for years with shady architect husband Alban (Jalil Lespert). Gabi recognizes James and gushes about his book (which no one else seems to have read). She invites him and Em to dinner, then an illicit pleasure drive off the property, where she proceeds to stroke a lot more than his ego.
Cronenberg shocks with an extreme close-up of the money shot (how this movie got an R rating is anybody’s guess), which helps position audiences for some of the perverse imagery to come — as if we weren’t already on guard after the unsettling series of spiraling expository shots that play over the film’s opening minutes, or editor James Vandewater’s jagged sense of cutting. Too drunk to drive back, Alban gives the wheel to James, who mows down a farmer crossing the road in the dead of night. Cronenberg goes straight for the gore, shooting broken bones, crushed skulls and crimson pools of blood with the appetite of a gourmet food photographer. He takes a more roundabout line to the guilt, which is what “Infinity Pool” is really about — or one of the key themes in this prickly critique, at least.
At Gabi’s insistence, they don’t call the cops. The movie plays on Western fears of so-called “shithole countries,” the sort of places where they’ve been warned that desperate locals will rape, kill or kidnap tourists — although in this case, it’s the visitors who are responsible for most of the violence. (The resort and coastlines were shot in Croatia, with other locations filmed in Hungary, though the use of unreadable signage and off-white extras suggest somewhere less Occidental.) The corrupt authorities are even more intimidating than the vaguely menacing civilians glimpsed along the roads, and James starts to freak out when he and Em are arrested the next morning.
Here the film takes a sci-fi turn, as police chief Thresh (Thomas Kretschmann) explains the punishment for manslaughter: Under the law, the victim’s eldest “should kill you in order to preserve the family’s honor.” Luckily, there’s a loophole. The Li Tolqans have developed a doubling procedure, available at a premium cost, through which lawbreakers may have themselves copied, memories and all. They may then have the doppelgänger punished in their place. Who wouldn’t accept such an offer? From where Cronenberg sits, it’s a fascinating psychological proposition. Some people fantasize about attending their own funerals. Here, you can witness your execution instead.
But if the double really is your duplicate, how do you know which version of yourself was killed? Does it even really matter? Over three features, Cronenberg and DP Karim Hussain have established a unique visual language, which ranges from slick-to-the-point-of-sinister atmospheric photography to phantasmagoric in-the-mouth-of-madness hallucinations of the kind Henri-George Clouzot experimented with for “Inferno.” The latter kick in during the cloning procedure, as “Infinity Pool” drowns us in a montage of bizarro body parts, most of them likely prosthetic, though they blink by too quickly to tell. All that skin is undeniably erotic, but disturbing too.
James emerges from the experience — not just the cloning, but the shock of watching himself disemboweled — a changed man. Em is horrified, insisting on leaving La Tolqa immediately, but Gabi couldn’t be more pleased. Now she has a new playmate, whom she introduces to an elite group of other guests who’ve been through it as well. From here on, “Infinity Pool” stops feeling logical, slipping into a kind of nightmare mode, amplified by a psychotropic local drug. James embraces the liberating sensation of being above the law. Or is he simply trying to escape his conscience?
What follows is a nearly incoherent stew of deranged — and darkly humorous — power games, as Goth’s Gabi becomes a cackling crone bent on humiliating James. His downward spiral is striking to watch, but increasingly difficult to process (the subliminal quick-cutting doesn’t make it any easier). By the time we’re confronted with Skarsgård rabidly wrestling a naked version of himself into submission, the film has long ceased to make sense. The Canadian helmer has created the cinematic equivalent of an M.C. Escher drawing, which bends and breaks and folds back on itself in impossible ways. Brain-shattering as it all is, we can hardly tear our eyes away.