For several seconds at the beginning of Brandon Cronenberg’s third feature, “Infinity Pool,” there is nothing but a blank screen and a woman’s whispered question. The woman is Em Foster (Cleopatra Coleman), and it’s clear that her husband, James (Alexander Skarsgard), has been talking in his sleep. Two of the words we hear are “brain death,” and, as the movie glides forward, they feel more and more like a warning.
Moneyed yet miserable, the couple has come to an upscale resort on a fictional island, their marriage as becalmed as James’s artistic inspiration. Years earlier, he wrote a poorly-reviewed novel, his inability to follow up — and a lifestyle financed by Em’s father — causing frustration and marital distance. Boredom is unexpectedly alleviated by an invitation to join two European guests, Gabi and Alban (Mia Goth and Jalil Lespert), on a forbidden excursion outside the resort’s strangely fortified compound. Exactly what are the barbed wire and heavily guarded gates trying to keep out?
It is probably not what you think: Cronenberg has so far been less curious about external threats than whatever danger lurks inside us. So when a car accident leaves one islander dead and James in police custody, and he is offered a horrifying choice — accept execution or pay for a double to die in his stead — his decision will either transform him or simply activate a rot that was festering all along.
The catch is that James must observe the killing. And that’s only the beginning of a movie that some might consider depraved, though its startlingly explicit imagery, including a phantasmagorical orgy, can sometimes distract from its cunning artistry. Soaked in an atmosphere of unrelenting dread, “Infinity Pool” works its canted camera angles and insistent, drumbeat-heavy score to transfixing effect. And when James joins a drugged-out cohort of rich revelers, all of whom are longtime members of the island’s get-out-of-jail-for-a-price program, his self-loathing climbs in tandem with the group’s escalating brutality.
Like the gloriously viscous process of creating the replicants, much of “Infinity Pool” might be funny if it weren’t so disturbing. Skarsgard is marvelous, gobbling food like an animal as invigoration and arousal replace emasculation. And Goth (fresh from last year’s “Pearl”) is a human interrobang, silken and seductive one minute, banshee-like the next. The performances sync perfectly with a movie that, in common with its titular amenity, is without visible limits; but there’s more going on here than a nihilistic tableau of unrestrained privilege. Presenting violence as both entertainment and aphrodisiac (as the director’s father, David Cronenberg, did so nauseatingly in his 1997 film, “Crash”), “Infinity Pool” probes deeper into the psychological effects on the perpetrator. It’s a theme the younger director explored brilliantly in his 2020 film, “Possessor” (whose assassin can also kill with impunity), and it shows him grappling with a more twisted and complex morality.
“Do youworry that they killed the wrong man?,” James is asked after one double is executed. Surreal, sophisticated and sometimes sickening, “Infinity Pool” suggests that while the elder Cronenberg might be fixated on the disintegration of our bodies, his son is more concerned with the destruction of our souls.
Rated R for murderous tourists and militaristic genitals. Running time: 1 hour 57 minutes. In theaters.