David Cronenberg’s films don’t age. This is incredible when one considers the range and speculative nature of the material that often attracts the director, particularly during the first half of his career. Many low-budget 1970s and 1980s genre films are quaint now, but the years haven’t diluted Cronenberg’s early “body horror” films one iota, and, in many cases, time has intensified their outrage, which mixes the visceral with the cerebral in a fashion that’s distinct to the filmmaker. Cronenberg has subsequently worked in every genre, save, arguably, for comedy, though his films are reliably informed by a subterranean strain of mordant humor. He’s adapted a handful of notably subjective novels thought to be “un-filmable,” and he’s consistently wrestled with defiantly alienating subjects, often associated ambiguously with unconventional sex.
This agelessness springs from an uncommon authorial focus, directness and clarity, which is reflected by the films’ deceptively unfussy, nearly sculptural mise-en-scène (honed in significant part with a group of longtime collaborators). Cronenberg rarely strains for melodrama, never leans too heavily on the score when silence or diegetic noise will more effectively establish emotion or mood. The director never approaches shocking material as if it’s shocking, and this casually intellectual need to explore something, while reserving judgment in a manner that’s analytical yet human, is the very center of his cinema. Cronenberg’s greatest accomplishment, though, may be the mystery that tinges all of his films, which still, for all their thematic ambition, ultimately possess an element of unknowability. The weird pull of these films can be attributed to a contradiction: They’re the work of a literalist who’s determined to plumb the figurative.