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OPINION | PIERS MARCHANT: Three more films from Sundance

by Piers Marchant | February 3, 2023 at 1:31 a.m.
Behind the masks: Alexander Skarsgard and Mia Goth play a wealthy couple on vacation in Brandon Cronenberg’s body horror film “Infinity Pool,” which opens theatrically today.

Sundance has returned as a full-fledged, in-person festival for those willing to make the climb to the upper elevations of Park City, Utah. Alas, I am unable to attend in person this year -- a loss on many fronts, not the least of a which, a chance to see old friends, and spend quality time in the shadows of the beautiful Wasatch mountains -- but that does not deter me from watching as many of this year's selections as possible from the comfort of my own couch.

Here is the next batch of screenings from this year's fest, a grab-bag of genres, including a merciless power-dynamic drama, a searing homage to Travis Bickle and a psycho-sexual freakout from the sire of the father of modern body-horror.

"Fair Play": As is so often the case in a world beset by cruel ironies, that which can make people successful in one aspect of their lives, can be equally damning in another. Take, for example, high finance. The very nature of the cruel and capricious business in which only the most ruthless and committedly callous seem to excel suggests people with a great deal of difficulty finding empathy when it comes to other aspects of their lives.

As we first meet Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich), they are near the apex of their lives: Young, beautiful, fabulously successful at the Wall Street capital group in which they both work as analysts, and, just now engaged. It would seem they have the world at their feet, their lives unspooling into something magnificent. Alas, writer/director Chloe Domont, making her feature debut, naturally has other plans for them.

When Emily unexpectedly gets a big promotion to PM (Portfolio Manager) over the hard-charging Luke, it throws their relationship dynamic into tumult. Suddenly, she's the one having to make middle-of-the-night meetings with the savagely unsparing founder, Campbell (Eddie Marsan), and meeting at high-power bars for drinks with the partners, while Luke, now actually working under Emily, struggles to catch up.

Emasculated and reduced, Luke begins pushing highly dubious propositions to Emily in hopes of hitting a lottery ticket, a system that leads to a cataclysmic failure. When she is miraculously able to recoup the big loss with another bid of her own, she cements her position, at the cost of Luke's sagging rep within the company.

For her part, Emily genuinely tries to maintain the parameters of their once-torrid relationship, but Luke can't seem to accept his demotion in their power dynamic, at least as he sees it, and continues to spiral more and more out of control as their foundation becomes increasingly unmoored, and their fights more and more scathing ("You're pathetic!" she hisses at him one night, after coming home late and very much drunk). Meanwhile, Emily's pushy mother has put together an engagement party for the deeply unhappy couple, which leads to a brutal last stand.

Domont's film is about as pitiless as many of its characters, putting toxic masculinity under an unflinching microscope (Luke isn't the only one who assumes Emily got the promotion via sexual favors, but he's certainly the one who should know better). At one point, near the end, he whines incessantly about the way she "stole" his promotion from him, suggesting that she doesn't know what it's like to live under that sort of pressure -- as if, as one of the few women at the firm, she's somehow had an easier run than he.

What does become clear by the film's brutal end is Campbell's assessment of Emily, that she was a shark among guppies, essentially, proves to be true. We witness not just the dissolution of their relationship (along with the rule that wealthy white men can always find another chance in an industry that values them above all others), but the birth of a powerful tycoon in the making. Emily comes away with a valuable lesson about self-preservation, which will no doubt serve her well as she goes on to have a ridiculously lucrative career, but it likely won't do much for her soul.

"Infinity Pool": Imagine if "The White Lotus" was written by William S. Burroughs.

Tell me if this set-up sounds at all familiar: A beautiful rich couple, James (Alexander Skarsgard) and Em (Cleopatra Coleman), spend an idyllic vacation in a secluded, fancy resort, on the gorgeous coast of a sun-drenched country, before a tragic car wreck occurs that changes everything and puts them in legal jeopardy.

Whatever you've just imagined from this starting-off point, I can pretty much guarantee you won't be able to predict where the narrative goes. In Brandon Cronenberg's psycho-sexual gonzo satire, he doesn't so much "eat the rich" as eviscerate them entirely.

James is a novelist with one poorly received publication to his credit, while his wife is fabulously wealthy (her father owns the publishing house that produced James' lone novel). When they meet another couple, the young, fetching Gabi (Mia Goth), and her older partner, they hit it off instantly, right up until a late-night drunken driving excursion leads to James hitting a native on the street and killing him.

What happens in the aftermath of the wreck, I won't spoil, but suffice it to say, this fictional country has a unique way of dispensing justice; one that leads James down a dark and mind-altering path, along with his new friends, while Em spirits away back to her regular life.

Cronenberg works with much the same sort of palette as his famous filmmaking father, lots of body horror, and eruptions of bodily fluids, mixed in with sexual sturm und drang, and a healthy helping of psychedelic camera maneuvers, but while early Cronenberg pere tended toward chaotic, bloody incoherence, the younger director keeps the throughline -- as peculiar as it might be -- taut throughout the orgies, and strobe effects, and pulped facial features, such that it doesn't feel indulgent or overblown.

What emerges from the torrents of blood, bile, and bizarreness (witness a naked Skarsgard on a dog leash, doing savage battle against himself) is a pretty chilling and clearcut condemnation of not just the super-rich (and the relatively poor countries they routinely exploit for their amusement), but also the human condition at large.

"Infinity Pool" is opening in theaters today.

"Magazine Dreams": Travis Bickle, the fictional protagonist of Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver," has become the go-to iconic figure for a certain type of toxic, isolated male rage, but to that dubious roll call, we can now add Killian Maddox (Jonathan Majors), the focus of Elijah Bynum's disturbingly absorbing downer of a drama.

Maddox, a deeply troubled orphan, who lives with his Pawpaw (Harrison Page), spends the vast majority of his days eating and working out feverishly, in hopes of becoming a champion body-builder, like the many idols with which he has adorned his bedroom walls like a teenager.

Killian's life to this point has been a tragedy -- his father murdered his mother before taking his own life -- so it's easy to see how his singular focus on success has quite possibly kept him alive, but his pain and turmoil have become buried so deep within his tortured psyche, he can't actually relate to anybody else (when he posts an awkward video of himself working out on YouTube, the comments skew predictably mincing, with one viewer questioning why he hasn't killed himself already).

Unfortunately, this includes Jessie (Haley Bennett), the sweet-faced cashier at the grocery where he works, who agrees to go out with him, but gets completely freaked out when Killian goes on a dark rant about his career ambitions shortly after matter-of-factly mentioning the death of his parents.

This scene, like so many others in Bynum's convincing film, becomes almost unbearable to watch. Killian doesn't seem like a bad person, exactly, but it's as if he's always behind dark-filtered glass, unable to read anyone's body language, short of the flex-posing he and other contestants perform on the stages of body-sculpting competitions.

His emotions are wildly misplaced -- heartbreakingly, when he begins to get upset, he attempts to calm himself down with a mantra he obviously picked up via his caseworker (Harriet Sansom Harris), but it does little to quell his burning fury -- but at least vaguely understandable.

Watching the film is a bit like viewing a man barely holding onto a steel girder high off the ground, losing his grip finger by agonizing finger. By the time his encounter with his body-building hero (Michael O'Hearn) goes seriously dark, it's as if Bynum has chopped every possible support system out from under his protagonist.

In this way, the film does feel long. You can almost sense Bynum's own hesitation as to what to do with his creation next, as the film hems and haws its way to a conclusion, but nothing takes away from Major's performance, which is startling, even for an actor already as accomplished as he is, and the doomed conviction of his character.

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