Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 12, 2023)
We last saw notable “oddball” filmmaker David Cronenberg with 2014’s Maps to the Stars, a more conventional feature than his usual fare. Cronenberg returns to his standard horror/sci-fi fare with 2022’s Crimes of the Future.
In the near future, humans struggle to adapt. Surroundings alter their biological makeup in a variety of ways, as “Accelerated Evolution Syndrome” means new organs and other shifts.
While society attempts to cope with this, performance artist Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) uses his new biology as part of his work. This leads him down a dark journey with unexpected outcomes.
Take that as a loose plot outline, mainly because Crimes comes with a loose plot. As implied at the start, the film finds Cronenberg back with the kind of grotesque focus on bodily oddities that marked a lot of his most famous fare such as The Fly and Dead Ringers.
Those films offer more of an emphasis on characters and their unusual circumstances than true narratives – not that either flops in that regard, but they don’t bring plot-heavy pieces. Expect the same from Crimes, and to an even greater degree.
We know to expect something off-kilter when then opening features a young boy (Sotiris Siozos) who eats objects like trash cans and whose mother (Lihi Kornowski) kills him due to his mutated abilities. Both elements tell the audience to anticipate a dark, ugly affair, and Cronenberg follows suit.
Well, “dark and ugly” with a satirical side, also typical of Cronenberg. He likes to find an undercurrent of humor in much of his work as a sly contrast to the unpleasantness of the visuals.
When Cronenberg works at his best, he delivers clever, unsettling fare. Unfortunately, Crimes feels closer to Cronenberg self-parody than the filmmaker at his peak.
Cronenberg’s affinity for unpleasant visuals and circumstances always threatens to overwhelm his films. Given how he delights in the graphic and grotesque, this turns into an ever-present issue.
In the case of Crimes, Cronenberg’s fetishistic fascination with unsettling changes to the human body become dominant – too dominant, as he forgets to tell a true story. Crimes acts more as some loose themes connected by ugly visuals than a real narrative or character piece.
In better Cronenberg movies, we get a real sense for the issues and pathology involved. In Crimes, we wind up with little more than “body porn”, as the movie delights in its unpleasant visuals and not much else.
At times, Crimes dallies with some thematic domains. Tenser’s situation seems to evoke today’s “anything for views” social media “influencers”, and the use of government agencies who clumsily attempt to monitor human evolution toys with topical domains in certain more conservative US states.
Unfortunately, Cronenberg fails to explore any of these topics in a satisfying manner. These may offer some undercurrents but they get lost in the fetishistic moments on display.
And we get a whole lot of those, as they dominate Crimes. When Cronenberg doesn’t specifically delight in graphic ugliness, the movie alludes to those topics and threatens to dive into them at any moment.
While Cronenberg manages a typically creepy an impactful visual style, the absence of a concise narrative or much real purpose becomes a drawback. The movie’s themes feel half-baked at best and fail to develop well.
Cronenberg does amass a good cast, as in addition to Mortensen, we find “names” like Léa Seydoux, Kristen Stewart and Scott Speedman. Escept for the borderline campy Stewart, they do fine.
Too bad they find themselves in service of such a spotty story. Crimes shows Cronenberg with his ability to unsettle intact, but he can’t find a compelling narrative around which to build this affair.