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Infinity Pool Review: Infinite Talent, Limited Payoff

  • Visually stunning and audacious
  • Another great Mia Goth performance
  • Little reason to care about anyone
  • Cultural commentary is shallow

It's only January, and still I feel safe in saying that "Infinity Pool," which debuted at Sundance Film Festival, is sure to be one of the most divisive films of 2023. The Cronenberg family brand of grotesque body horror has always provoked a wide range of reactions, and "Infinity Pool" demonstrates Brandon Cronenberg's willingness to go to even further extremes than his father David ever did. Some won't be able to watch at all — whether due to the gore or the strobing montages so intense that the film opens with a seizure warning. Others won't be able to look away from the screen, but even those who are captivated will be split on how much it actually amounts to anything meaningful.

I personally found it to be a captivating piece of filmmaking, but an unfortunately shallow one. "Infinity Pool" is a beautiful nightmare of a film, with its psychedelic visuals and willingness to break taboos making for a wild journey. Past a certain point, however, there's almost nothing to hang onto emotionally, and what there is to hang onto intellectually ends up being under-explored. While I can't deny the "Yes... ha ha ha.. yes!" sicko thrills Cronenberg delivers, the movie felt overall disappointing after all is said and done.

Crime and punishment on repeat

"Infinity Pool" takes place on the fictional island of Li Tolqa, an attractive destination for wealthy tourists and seemingly a crime-infested nightmare for anyone actually living there. Tourists are welcome at vacation resorts on the island but prohibited from leaving the resort grounds. The film's protagonist, James Foster (Alexander Skarsgård), wrote an unsuccessful novel six years ago, hasn't had been able to write since, and is on vacation with his wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman) in hopes of getting inspiration.

Another couple at the resort, Alban (Jalil Lespert) and Gabi (Mia Goth), tempt the Fosters into an elicit getaway. James is especially taken with Gabby, who obsesses over both his book and his body (one scene shown at the Sundance premiere is so graphic it's been edited down for wide release to just barely avoid an NC-17). Things go from questionable to disastrous when James hits and kills a local while driving — a crime for which he shall face the death penalty. However, there is an unusual workaround for this punishment: For reasons that go unexplained, Li Tolqa is the only nation in the world to have perfected human cloning, so criminals can have exact doppelgängers of themselves made for the purposes of execution.

Witnessing the clone's execution leaves Em horrified and ready to go home pretty early on, but James is disturbingly not too disturbed, and being unable to find his passport gives him an excuse to stick around on Li Tolqa. What follows is essentially a parade of non-stop depravity, where James goes along with Gabi, Alban, and other amoral tourists doing whatever it is a complete psychopath could do if they could get away with anything.

The easy comparison narratively is "The White Lotus" meets "The Purge" with a bit of "Rick and Morty" sci-fi nihilism thrown in. Weirdly, though, the experience of watching it ended up reminding me most of Harmony Korine's "Spring Breakers." Both "Infinity Pool" and "Spring Breakers" are alienating, often tiring films carried primarily by exceptional cinematography and energetic editing. Both give lip service to issues of privilege and appropriation without actually having that much to say about them. And both films share the serious weakness of giving almost no reason for viewers to care about their loathsome characters — though one performance in "Infinity Pool" rises above the rest and heightens the entertainment value significantly.

Mia Goth is Infinity Pool's biggest saving grace

After "Suspiria," "X," and especially "Pearl," Mia Goth has proven herself to be one of today's greatest "scream queens." In "Infinity Pool," she delivers yet another standout scene-stealing performance balanced right on the edge of terror and hilarity, and she's easily the best thing about the whole film. Gabi is the only one of the resort regulars with a distinctive personality of her own, and Goth's acting amplifies that beyond what's in the script. She relishes playing the devil tempting James to more and more sin, and their relationship builds to a couple of brilliantly twisted punchlines that enliven the movie at a point where all the criminal mayhem is starting to wear thin.

Skarsgård also delivers a solid performance, with material that plays to his willingness to handle extreme content. Even without context, you know a scene with him in a dog collar is gonna be something good. The rest of the cast is let down by characters who either appear very briefly or are otherwise just all basically the same flavor of awful. "The White Lotus" only works as well as it does because the characters are all different flavors of awful!

So much about the film's setting is underdeveloped. The location of Li Tolqa is left unspecific (the movie was filmed mostly in Croatia but cultural signals read Latin American or Pacific Islander), and the resort is presented as some sort of Epcot-like meeting place of multicultural stereotypes: There's an Asian fusion restaurant, a Bollywood dance performance, and in one brief shot a bunch of people with giant fake noses dressed as Orthodox Jews. That last bit is especially bad; the film's intentions are satirical, but without any context beyond shock value it's far too easy to imagine such imagery being embraced by certain crowds.

"Infinity Pool" is made with such filmmaking talent that cinephiles who are already willing to go for its sick extremity will definitely get something out of the experience. It's unique enough, even amidst the trend of dark satires about rich jerks on islands, to stand out and find an audience — even if its satire is one of its weaknesses. For most of those who see it, I expect one viewing will definitely be enough. There's just not much reason to want to return to Li Tolqa.

"Infinity Pool" opens in theaters on Friday, January 27.