Somewhere in the middle of Brandon Cronenberg’s wild Infinity Pool, a concerned woman named Em (Cleopatra Coleman) asks her husband, with whom she is vacationing at a resort on the fictional island of Li Tolqa, “Is this a dream? It would make more sense.” Indeed! Cronenberg has crafted a nightmare orgy of extreme, disorienting imagery (he loves a neon psychedelic collage) that frightens most severely by what isn’t shown. It’s a hell of a balance the writer-director is striking, this bombarding and withholding, and the effect is an uber-pervy Lynchian vision that narratively manages to cross many of its T’s and dot most of its I’s. The fear comes not from being unaware of what’s going on, but of what’s going to happen next. It’s like being in a foreign country, learning as you go, and understanding at every turn just how out of your depth you are.
In that way, the movie impressively implants in its viewers’ minds the far-out experience of protagonist James (Alexander Skarsgård), a creatively bereft writer whose last (and first) book came out six years ago. He’s come to Li Tolqa for inspiration, though he admits that doing so on a resort is pathetic. “You’re so frozen these days, I can’t even tell if you’re sleeping or awake,” his wife Em tells him. Via jumpy editing and a reclining kind of haze, Infinity Pool weaves its spell. It takes us to a parallel universe, but then, so does vacation, when our priorities scramble and for a brief period, we live different lives. Infinity Pool’s might be the worst vacation ever—or the best, depending on your appetite for depravity.
The spiral starts its downward spin when James meets Gabi (Pearl’s Mia Goth at her best and most inscrutable) on the beach by their resort. A local Li Tolqan is doing donuts with his ATV, which Gabi informs James is a statement: He’d like to stab a tourist like James through the throat and hang up his head to warn visitors away. Charmed, we’re sure! James and Em join Gabi and her partner Alban (Jalil Lespert) at a Chinese restaurant on the resort strip that James had mocked moments ago (“Why would they have a Chinese restaurant?”), and it’s clear in a strobing scene on the dance floor set to Tim Hecker’s pulsing but atonally droning score that Gabi is out to seduce James. She does so in no uncertain terms when, the next day on a beach outside of the resort’s boundaries, she sneaks up behind James while he’s peeing, leans on him, and jerks him off to orgasm. We see a closeup of a hand gliding over an erect penis that then ejaculates. For good measure, Cronenberg gives us a shot of semen hitting the sand.
On the way back to the resort, James drives their borrowed convertible, whose lights start flickering, preventing him from seeing the local who has just wandered into the road. James hits him and he dies. Gabi insists that they flee the scene, because confessing will do them no good. “This isn’t a civilized country. It’s brutal and it’s filthy,” she barks. She reasons that if James reports the accident, “You’ll be raped by police tonight and tomorrow they’ll find your body. That’s how it works with these animals.” The police nab them anyway, and James is informed that the offense is punishable by execution—it’s local custom that the man’s sons be allowed to murder him to preserve the family’s honor.
But! There’s an out: Li Tolqa’s tourism initiative offers something called the Revised Process of Doubles Act for International Visitors and Diplomats. In exchange for a fee, a clone of James can be made and implanted with his mind, specifically for the purposes of execution. James withdraws money from the jail’s ATM and slips into a red goo wearing a swim cap and, hilariously, one of those mouth stretcher things from that game Speak Out. After the procedure, he watches a 13-year-old stab his clone nearly three dozen times. Toward the end of the sequence, his eyes seem to smile.
Back at the resort, Gabi informs him that she’s gone through much the same thing: A few compounds over, a hotel’s infinity pool designed by Alban fell and killed two workers, for which she and Alban were found guilty and sentenced to death. She introduces James to a local scene of tourist “zombies”—those who have gone through the experience and, in fact, have harnessed it for consequence-free hedonism. They buy their way out of breaking local laws (which are strict), and so their vacation experience is a kind of all-inclusive Purge. They have, you might say, an infinity pool of clones to use in their stead, as long as the funds keep flowing. Most of the zombies present as white, while the exact racial makeup of Li Tolqa is unclear—those in law enforcement seem Eastern European, and it’s suggested that the Li Tolqans are a kind of tribal society that exists in cycles of revenge. (The movie itself was shot in Croatia and Hungary.) Once James joins the fold, the zombies take him to the house of the hotel owner who turned Gabi and Alban in to authorities. Donning local “ekki” masks, which look like mime masks with deformities and skin conditions, they invade the mansion à la A Clockwork Orange, or the Manson family.
There’s a kind of obsession with bad behavior on vacation afoot in pop culture, but while The White Lotus and Triangle of Sadness are entertaining, the messages are fairly linear: Rich people fuck around and find out (or at least we find out how morally bankrupt they are). What Cronenberg does with the trope, though, is richer in texture and less judgmental—he is just as entranced with excess as his characters. The gratuitous ejaculation, the stabbing scene, a pummeled head right out of a Lucio Fulci movie, shots of what look like penetration during a scene in which Gabi and James do a local drug that is “a hallucinogen…also an aphrodisiac” (unlikely simultaneous effects that are very convenient for such an extreme film)—it’s all there to dare us to revel along. In fact, the director’s cut, which was screened for the purpose of this review, was given an NC-17 rating (it’s being released Friday in theaters via an R-rated cut). Infinity Pool is not a movie that’s interested in telling you how to think about disrespectful tourists, though there’s no shortage of unsightly behavior from them, including Gabi’s racist regard for the local culture. Instead, it’s a movie that exists to scramble your senses.
When James first meets the zombies, one suggests that perhaps they are not their original selves. “For all you know, they could have just swapped you out,” he tells James. After all, the clones are implanted with their source’s memories. As James cycles through clones—or becomes a Xerox of a Xerox—he’s clearly changing. “You’ve gone wrong around the eyes like one of those crabs in the dump,” Em tells him. But is he becoming more himself or getting further away? Skarsgård’s dumbfounded affect is relatable, though Goth’s temptress range, from coquettish to rageful to sadistic, is most impressive. She is particularly stunning in the foreground of a sunset, honeyed and serene—a real standout vision in a movie that seems to have an inexhaustible supply of singular imagery.