Watching yourself die and living to tell the tale isn’t something anyone on this Earth could ever relate to. And yet that’s what Brandon Cronenberg’s latest film Infinity Pool concerns itself with. A story about the hedonism that arises from watching your clone get punished for your own sins, it has less to do with the fun what-if questions that this sci-fi premise could offer and more to do with the psychology behind the experience.
Alexander Skarsgård plays James Foster, a struggling author looking for inspiration at an exotic seaside resort with his wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman). Money hasn’t been an issue since Em comes from a wealthy family and has a good job. Although, we get the sense that she’s a little frustrated with his six-year-long writer’s block. And as it turns out, idle hands are the devil’s workshop.
They meet another couple, Gabi (Mia Goth) and Alban (Jalil Lespert), who they accompany on a joyride to the beach one day, despite being told they’re not allowed to leave the confines of the resort. That night, when James is driving, the headlights on the car don’t work and he ends up killing a local man crossing the street. He goes to jail where he finds out that it’s a local custom for the eldest son of the victim to execute the murderer (or, in this case, manslaughterer). However, there’s another option to consider…
We soon find out that the local government is essentially funded by rich foreigners who pay thousands of dollars to undergo a cloning procedure after which their clone is the one who dies in his or her place. James agrees to do this, but part of the deal is he’s forced to witness his clone getting killed. And as it turns out, he finds some sort of catharsis from the experience. It unravels even more when we find out that Gabi and Alban planned for this to happen to him. You see, they’re part of this secret club of “zombies” who go around the area committing acts of violence, Droog-style, just to get the “privilege” of watching their clones get murdered.
Early on, we’re told that the town outside the resort’s borders is dangerous, yet we never see any evidence of this – only the dangers the foreigners, like James and Gia, pose on the locals and each other. This fictional nation may be a culture that condemns one sin by enabling it even more with another, but we never witness any violence or hostility from the locals or the authority that governs them.
James’ payment to the detective, which enables him to continue this lifestyle, is his version of making a deal with the devil. For Em, James died during his clone’s execution. She comes from wealth and is essentially funding his ostensible writing career, so there’s a self-interest to cutting him off as well. His potential execution would have been an out for her, and so she’s more at peace with leaving him once he starts to change. We also find out that she had willingly told the detective that James was guilty.
Cronenberg tampers with the idea of ambiguity a lot here, but also how circumstances can be engineered to create an illusion of ambiguity. We get a visual reminder of these uncertainties, especially early on when the director, with DP Karim Hussain, composes the scenes so that they appear to be exiting the frame. We watch people eating dinner at the bottom-third of the image, or characters standing to the far right as they’re talking to someone off-screen to the right. The distortions and questions created by Cronenberg are small early on, and get answered rather quickly, but later become much larger and more ambiguous.
It’s briefly discussed whether or not it’s really James or James’ clone who’s carrying out the role of our protagonist for the rest of the movie. However, this twist bait is never really stressed, nor does it become much of a factor unless you try to read into the ambiguities brought on by its ending. It merely provides a deeper layer to the film without encumbering the main plot. If explored more, this movie would’ve become something different. Rather than ever becoming a Nolan-esque thriller, Infinity Pool is more of a study on manipulation and morality, and how a man breaks down both spiritually and egotistically through attrition.
Much like A Clockwork Orange or Midsommar, Infinity Pool is one of those movies that must feature irredeemable characters engaging in extremes in order to prove its points. However, unlike those former films, this one lacks a sympathetic character at any stage in his development. We fail to find any tragedy in James’ downward spiral because he’s not likable. And his lack of agency prevents us from ever respecting or, at the very least, sympathizing with him. But then again, maybe it’s not about sympathy at all.
Can a person’s weakness ever be corrected without being overcorrected? In the finite limitations of a movie, no. However, the timeline of Infinity Pool branches out much further than its runtime. Despite what it may seem, the elusive ending doesn’t symbolize a man’s listlessness or hopelessness, but James’ new disconnect from the real world because he is, in fact, a good person at heart. It’s hard to expect love when your misdeeds are innumerous.
There’s a lot to unpack in this film and it gets hard to watch at times. However, there are certainly moments that stick with you visually and psychologically, even if it never makes much of an impact on an emotional level – that’s where it really becomes ineffective. Infinity Pool won’t be for most viewers, but it’s certainly memorable.