I wanted to like this more. Writer-director Brandon Cronenberg proffers an intriguing premise built upon themes he explored in Possessor, but the resulting work feels unsure. Spoilers follow.
The story unfolds in a high-end resort in a fictional third-world island country. We follow James, an American writer whose debut novel underwhelmed years prior. James has settled into a comfy lifestyle by marrying into money, but the sedate existence has left him uninspired. Alexander Skarsgård portrays James as doltish, always uncomfortable, and unsure.
James’s wife Em, played by Cleopatra Coleman, sports an Australian accent and seems more comfortable with herself and her life. We wonder what she sees in James until it’s revealed she married him after her publishing-magnate father forbade it.
Into this fractured marriage comes another couple, Gabi, played by Mia Goth, and her husband Alban, played by Jalil Lespert. Gabi has read James’s novel and loved it. James relishes the attention and borderline overt flirtation from Gabi.
The next morning, Gabi and Alban invite James and Em to venture outside the resort. They bribe a staff member for use of his car and set out for a seaside picnic. As they leave, we notice the resort’s guarded gates topped with coiled barbed wire.
At sunset, the group starts back to the resort. Alban is too drunk to drive, so James—who’s also been drinking—takes the wheel. Unfortunate circumstances see James strike a local on a deserted country road. The group flees the scene. The next morning, the police arrive and take James and Em into custody.
James learns the penalty for his crime is death by the hand of the victim’s next male descendent. Here, a fourteen-year-old boy. James is all blubbery denial.
James then learns the country has an unusual “arrangement” to promote tourism and avoid international incidents, James can pay to have a double die in his place. Said double is a literal double. A clone with all of James’s memories, including the crime.
There is one condition: James must watch his double die.
This experience—an over-the-top gory affair with gallons of spewing blood—horrifies Em, but James sits transfixed, a hungry smile playing on his lips. Back at the resort, Em throws things into a suitcase, frantic to leave. But James can’t find his passport.
“I’ll understand if you leave without me,” James says.
In time, she does. By then James has fallen back in with Gabi and Alban, who introduce James to a group of other wealthy visitors who’ve transgressed and witnessed their own executions.
From here the film sits ripe with promise. Cronenberg addresses an obvious trope at once by having a character ask if they could all be clones. “Who cares?” comes the reply.
James joins the group and descends into libertine decadence. Casual murder, violent beatings, and drug-fueled orgies. Cronenberg presents the latter in a strobe-flickering style that adds an uneasy sense of menace to the proceedings.
But after these escalations, the film stumbles. Some forced-plotting sees James try to escape the island, only for Gabi to lead the group to intercept him. They succeed and we’re presented a retread scene where James beats a clone of himself, after which Cronenberg employs a blunt metaphor to illustrate James’s rebirth and innate weakness. It’s meant to shock, but it feels pulled from a different film, one more aligned to Goth’s now heightened harpy-like performance.
Like Bill Gunn, who’s Stop! saw a writer in a tropical locale suffering from privileged malaise venture into bacchanalian waters, Cronenberg’s effort feels earnest but unresolved. As though he hoped in making the picture, his feelings would coalesce, but like his protagonist, found himself lost and unsure where to go next.
Still, the film still haunts. Not its message, but its potential. Like Martyrs, it could have challenged our fundamental notions and left us forever altered by the viewing experience. Alas, it falls short.