Finding Salvation and Soul-Decay in Brandon Cronenberg’s Infinity Pool
The following article contains spoilers for Infinity Pool.
All-inclusive resorts are supposed to be perfect. The beach, the pool, the endless supply of food, drink, group activities, and events… With such things, there’s no need to leave the resort grounds and no point in wondering what the outside world’s like. Brandon Cronenberg’s Infinity Pool begins with James (Alexander Skarsgård) and Em Foster (Cleopatra Coleman) solemnly enjoying the amenities of just such a resort in fictional Li Tolqa, but it’s off-putting from the start.
The sun is shining and the resort staff are ready to satisfy every whim, but still, everything is bleak. Perhaps the opening scene’s bleached coloring—which looks like a postcard photo—contributes to the impression that Li Tolqa’s beauty is dim. The film grows even more unnerving when the Fosters meet another couple; Alban (Jalil Lespert) and Gabi (Mia Goth) are annual guests and convince James and Em to leave the resort grounds for a day-trip and picnic.
After a day of drinking and talking, James—the most sober of the lot—agrees to drive Alban’s car back to the resort. Inexplicably, the car’s headlights flicker and briefly die out; when they do, James hits a farmer on the side of the road, killing him. In a panicked rush, everyone agrees to return to the resort bearing a grim new secret. Alban and Gabi, however, betray James and Em’s and turn them into the authorities, who then call for James’ death. The film’s gruesome concept is then revealed: rich lawbreakers can pay to have clones of themselves executed in their stead.
Infinity Pool is a raw survey of feeble attempts at avoiding the consequences of wrongdoing. It shows a world where the rich act as if they can get away with anything, thus committing crimes simply for the thrill. But James’ maddening descent reveals that such compromise brings soul-decay, not salvation.
It’s hard to overstate the influence that David Cronenberg, the father of intellectual body horror, had on his son’s third feature-length film. Every “execution” scene involving clones is gory and unrelenting. James’ own sterilization sequence involves a grim confrontation with his clone, who is wide-eyed and motionless in a vat of red wax. As James stares down at his twin’s floating head, an eerie tension grows: the course of action he will soon take is immoral but what choice does he have? It’s kill (your clone) or be killed.
As the farmer’s son relentlessly stabs James’ clone, images of blood and torn flesh invade the screen in split-second intervals. Em, who seems to be the film’s most morally apt character, is disgusted and dismayed. She can’t bear the clone execution concept and won’t participate, and calls for James to leave it all behind and return to the States with her. However, he’s become too intrigued by the world of possibilities now opening up before him, too interested in a lawful country that has lawless exceptions for escaping morality.
At first glance, Infinity Pool seems of a kind with many of last year’s “eat the rich” films. The Menu, Triangle of Sadness, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, and Babylon all featured satire, direct opposition, and humiliation of the high-class elite. But Infinity Pool differs from those films in that the rich are not thwarted. Instead, the rich resort-goers who take in James actually get away with everything in the end. They pack their bags and leave as if nothing ever happened, sharing a “See you next year!” while boarding their flights home. The only criminal who remains is James, who somehow feels burdened by the things he’s done in Li Tolqa. The question hiding behind Cronenberg’s horror is, “How much did it cost?”
Mankind is stained with the inclination to supplant the Creator with the created. We naturally tend to hope that things like money, sex, power, material possessions, and relationships will thwart the inner feeling that we’re truly guilty and in need of salvation from a higher source: not man or his inventions, but rather, the God-man. In trading “the truth about God for a lie,” it becomes easy to revere “the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25). James trades the truth of his personal guilt for those versions of himself that are given to Li Tolqa’s authorities. Time and again, however, his salvation is temporary, incomplete. He forms a self-destructive habit, one that he must return to for his freedom again and again. Insofar as he continues committing crimes in Li Tolqa, he is bound to killing clones of himself to escape death.
The rich gang’s ability to send someone to die on their behalf presents a stark parallel with Jesus Christ’s sacrifice: Cloning produces someone who looks, acts, and feels like them, someone who resonates with—and feels responsible for—everything they’ve done. The same was said of Jesus: “he had to be made like his brothers [and sisters] in every respect” (Hebrews 2:17). Such substitution is a joyous thing for Christians, but it’s maddening for those living in Li Tolqa, as James discovers.
At one point, Dr. Modan (John Ralston) asks James, “Do you worry that they got the wrong man? Do you think… that they killed the real James? I’ll never know if I’m myself as long as I live. Do you fear you just witnessed your own demise?” James’ response? “I can only hope.” Even as he escapes the physical consequences of his actions (death), he can’t escape the metaphysical decay brought on by his guilt.
The sacrifices in Infinity Pool may atone for one’s sin, but only ever partially. The crime is committed, the price is paid by someone else, the original culprit walks “free”—wash, rinse, repeat. But the beauty of the Christian life rests in the truth that Christ’s work is final. The Gospel breaks that gruesome cycle in which people do wrong, feel guilt, and try to turn away only to return to their wrongdoing all over again. When Jesus rose from the grave, death’s grip on mankind loosened. No longer are the sins of the world inescapable. Instead, the Gospel invites people to stop sacrificing parts of themselves for vindication, and to start embracing the completed and all-encompassing work of Christ.
On Jesus Christ’s proclamation on the cross—“It is finished!” (John 19:30)—Charles Spurgeon preached:
What a spring of comfort flows from it to the true believer amid his innumerable failures, flaws, and imperfections. What service do you perform, what duty do you discharge of which you can say, “It is finished?” Alas! not one; your service is imperfect, your obedience is incomplete, your love is fluctuating, yea, upon it all are visible the marks of human defilement and defect. But here is the work which God most delights in, “finished.” “Ye are complete in him.” Turn you, then, your eye of faith out of yourself, and off of all your own doings, and deal more immediately, closely, and obediently with the finished work of Immanuel. Come away from your fickle love, from your weak faith, from your little fruitfulness, from your uneven walk, from all your short-comings and imperfections, and let your eye of faith repose where God’s eye of complacent love reposes, on the finished work of Jesus.
We all may feel the sort of soul-decay that James felt. Indulging in pleasures provides ephemeral gratification, but we end up feeling less like ourselves and more subsumed by guilt as the ecstasy wanes. We then try to make changes or cut out bad habits, but only in Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection can sin truly be laid to rest.
James does eventually try to turn from his clone-killing ways. He doesn’t want to play the game anymore. But when he tries to leave the rich gang, their response is cult-like. Gabi won’t let him go that easily; it would mean a confession to the U.S. government, and then they would all truly face their guilt. She yells and terrorizes James, forcing him at gunpoint to walk back to the resort, but he eventually escapes to a small house in the woods. There, Gabi brings out a clone of James that behaves like a dog. She beckons him to kill it and feel the rush of what Alban previously described as “the beauty” of transformation “pouring out of you.” That’s when James realizes he was never radiant, never transformed. Whatever fulfillment or sense of freedom he got from crime and clone-killing proved a tighter prison than any of Li Tolqa’s jails.
Although he initially refuses to kill his doglike clone, James is forced to kill it out of self-defense when it attacks him. As Infinity Pool ends, he maintains cold, emotionless contact with Em—a phone call that sounds more like a conversation with James’ clone. And as his rich friends go home as if nothing mad ever happened, James stays at the resort as a storm brews. He sits outside amongst the ravaging weather: cold, rain-drenched, and unfeeling. James has become the very thing he was sending to the slaughter: a shell of himself, confused and unable to bear the weight of death around him.
For all of its outright disturbing content—drugs, sex, power abuse, murder—Infinity Pool depicts the relationship between depravity and the decay of the self. Alban, Gabi, and the rest of the rich gang may not yet experience the effects of their actions as James does, but within the corrupt system of Li Tolqa, the horrifying truth is inevitable: evil kills the soul, and there is no means of salvation to be found within ourselves.