Crimes Of The Future Review: David Cronenberg Returns To His Body Horror Roots With A Gruesome, Darkly Funny Freak Show

David Cronenberg is back, and he's ready to make you squirm. "Crimes of the Future," the Toronto auteur's first feature film in eight years, has Cronenberg returning to his body horror roots. Indeed, there are times when "Crimes" feels like Cronenberg is playing the hits. The title itself is recycled from a film he directed in 1970, while this new feature has scenes that often play like direct references to previous Cronenberg movies such as "Existenz," "Crash," "Dead Ringers," and even "Eastern Promises." Despite this somewhat recycled material, Cronenberg isn't just going through the motions with "Crimes of the Future." Instead, it feels as if he's returning to his roots; to the type of film he became renowned for — a film where everyone is off-kilter; where the flesh holds hypnotic sway; where sex and horror are intrinsically intertwined; where everything feels vaguely Canadian.

Set in an unspecific future where everything looks ruined and rotten, "Crimes of the Future" introduces us to the performance artist couple of Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen, who, with his silvery hair and whispery voice, seems to be acting almost as a Cronenberg avatar here) and Caprice (Léa Seydoux, playing a character who is slightly underdeveloped). Saul stalks around in a black cloak like the angel of death; a strange man in a strange time. Constantly clearing his throat, he squats, he shuffles, he shambles. He looks uncomfortable in his own skin, and there's a reason for that: Saul has a disease known as Accelerated Evolution Syndrome. The disease causes new, non-functional organs to suddenly grow within his body, like tumors. Saul isn't alone — this affliction is starting to spread to others. But Saul and Caprice have taken an artistic approach to the entire experience. For reasons that are never entirely explained, pain no longer exists in the future. As a result, Saul allows Caprice to perform surgeries on him in front of adoring crowds. First, she finds a way to tattoo the organs while they're still inside Saul's body — then she yanks them out, usually with the help of an insectoid machine that was initially designed to perform autopsies. 

It's all appropriately ghastly and gross, but to Saul and Caprice, it's art. As Caprice puts it, Saul is taking the rebellion of his body and mutating it into something of his own control. It's both weird and dangerous, but also fascinating. Is this Cronenberg commenting on trying to make raw, strange art in an increasingly sterilized world of paint-by-numbers superhero franchises? Or is the filmmaking having a laugh at the expense of over-serious performance artists, especially those who consider themselves edgy? Maybe a little from column A, and a little from column B. It's clear Cronenberg does find some of this funny, because he stages a scene later where a performance artist character known as Ear Man, who is covered in — you guessed it — human ears, engages in a dance-off in front of a crowd, while another character observes that Ear Man is a better dancer than he is an artist. Don't quit your day job, Ear Man. 

Especially creepy

Dark comedy runs all through "Crimes of the Future" particularly in the form of the National Organ Registry, a newly-formed organization (organ-ization?) that is in charge of registering everyone's new organs. It's run by two oddballs: the over-eager Wippet (Don McKellar) and the nervous Timlin (Kristen Stewart), who are both far too obsessed with the strange new organs than they probably should be. Timlin in particular becomes erotically charged by Saul and his work, and Stewart garners huge laughs playing her character as a nervous, jittery weirdo; like some sort of cartoon squirrel in human form. One of the funniest moments in the movie arises when Caprice refers to Stewart's character as "especially creepy." 

In the midst of all this madness enters Lang Dotrice (Scott Speedman, appropriately grungy), a stranger with a fondness for mysterious candy bars who pitches Saul an idea for a new performance: performing a live autopsy on Lang's recently deceased son. Saul, for all his oddness, seems taken aback by the idea — at least at first. But he also sees a chance for something new and exciting, and so does Caprice — until she begins to get cold feet about the whole thing. 

All of these characters drift through "Crimes of the Future" in a kind of daze. Cronenberg is adept at dream-like situations and he has a knack for directing his actors in such a way that they behave as if they're all slightly drugged. It could easily be read as coldness or aloofness to those not on Cronenberg's same wavelength, but there's life here. It's bizarre, strange, surreal life, but life all the same. A lust for the perverse and the strange, but in a way meant to entice, not repel. It is sexy and squirmy all at once, such as a moment where Saul has a zipper installed on his stomach, only to have Caprice unzip it so she can lick the slick, wet organs within his torso. "Don't spill anything," he instructs her, leaning back and trying to literally hold his guts in. 

I've missed this David Cronenberg

Despite the frequently heavy, ghoulish material, "Crimes of the Future" occasionally feels slight, like it's missing something you can't quite put your finger on. There's a subplot involving a detective character (Welket Bungué) that feels undercooked, and the film ends far too abruptly for my tastes. And yet, Cronenberg hasn't been quite this good in a long while (his previous film, "Maps to the Stars," was a dour dud). In a way, he seems rejuvenated by this material. He's not just returning to his body horror roots, but he's also channeling his earlier films, with their long stretches of silence and their non-descript, underfurnished rooms. 

The filmmaker's love of props and paraphernalia is also on full display. Saul sleeps in something called an OrchidBed, which is a bed that hangs from the ceiling via constantly moving cables and wires. Fleshy tendrils snake out of the bed and attach themselves to Saul's body like umbilical cords (or the skin-sheathed cords on the video game device in "Existenz"). There's also a strange, bumpy, alien-like chair that's allegedly designed to be sat in for breakfast, even though it's constantly rocking and tilting side to side (imagine trying to eat a bowl of cereal while riding a mechanical bull and you'll get the idea). The autopsy machine is particularly memorable, with its greenish shell-like exterior and its many blades that move as if they have a mind of their own. Saul and Caprice crawl into the machine to make love — but not in the traditional way. "Surgery is the new sex," Timlin says, and she seems to be right. So much so that when she tries to seduce Saul the old-fashioned way with a kiss he balks and behaves awkwardly. He can't have sex "the old way" — he can only engage in bloody rituals that carve new topographies into his flesh.  

"Crimes of the Future" is Cronenberg in his comfort zone, which is a zone choked with things both repulsive and fascinating. It's not quite as nasty as its pre-release reputation suggests, nor is it even the most graphic film Cronenberg has directed. But it's rife with the filmmaker's signatures and quirks; his fetishes and his dreams; his obsessions and his amusements. Buying a ticket to "Crimes of the Future" is like buying a ticket to the best freak show in town, with Cronenberg as the carnival barker luring us in. That may scare some off, but for me, it was a little like coming home. I've missed this David Cronenberg, and I'm thrilled to have him back. Long live the new flesh. 

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10