The subgenre of the medical thriller has become fairly constrictive lately. Sitting down for a medical thriller generally prepares you for one of two things: a chop-a-thon with a Josef Mengele-like villain or a “playing God” ethical dilemma. Errors of the Human Body has none of the former, some of the latter, and (happily) enough of ‘none of the above’ to be a memorably-creepy little drama/thriller.
The film stars Michael Eklund as Geoff Burton, a brilliant geneticist who has been invited to work in a bitterly bleak & winterish Dresden, Germany. It seems that a team there is on the verge of a breakthrough in cancer research and his expertise is needed. It quickly becomes apparent that Burton has some weighty demons to wrestle, in the form of his deceased baby son and the broken marriage that resulted. Burton’s son died from an unknown viral attack, subsequently called Burton’s Syndrome, which Geoff is obsessed with diagnosing and curing.
Skulking along his new medical institute’s starkly unfamiliar corridors, Burton soon reacquaints himself with former lover and new colleague Rebekka (Karoline Herfurth), who reveals that the institute has discovered a gene (nicknamed the ‘Easter Gene’) that causes rapid regeneration in animal cells. The discovery is groundbreaking and has led to vociferous disagreement amongst some scientists in the lab. Most vocal for the necessity of testing the gene on higher life forms is the brash and ambitious Jarek (played by a bald and eyebrow-less Tomas Lemarquis), while Rebekka and the majority of other scientists call for caution. Both Jarek and Rebekka attempt to wheedle Burton onto their side of things, while he wrestles with nightmares of the tragedy that destroyed his former life and begins to formulate plans to turn the Easter Gene into a Burton Syndrome eradicating agent.
Soon, Geoff begins to suspect Jarek of conducting his own experiments with the Easter Gene on the institute’s resident mouse population. The tension comes to a head at, of all things, a Halloween dress-up party, where costumes, uber-dark lighting, and blaring techno music turn a run-of-the-mill confrontation into an unsettling affair full of portent. The film then begins to rush towards the climax, which examines the underbelly of scientific manipulation and ethics with an ironic twist as the cherry on top.
Errors of the Human Body may not be what some audiences are expecting, as its slow burn doesn’t pay off with bloodshed, but rather it sticks to its early premise of the natural conflict between medicine and mortality and the tragedies that sometimes result. The film’s natural villain, unearthly and overconfident Jarek, and straight shooter Rebekka are ultimately closer along the ethics spectrum than first perceived. Gray areas abound, to the point where the somewhat-expected ending muddles the already opaque deeper meaning put forth by first-time feature director Eron Sheean. Should science steer clear of God’s wishes or should science seek to solve everything? On the cusp of choosing a side, Sheean blinks, appearing to posit that the answer is unknowable.
Regardless of my slight discomfort with its final message, Errors of the Human Body is elevated by a sublime turn by star Michael Eklund. His Geoff is haunted and broken, irreparably damaged by the loss of his son and marriage but feverishly driven to solve the puzzles of both past and present. His agony, particularly in the third act, is brilliantly painful. Despite the screenplay skimming over his character’s supposed scientific prowess, to the film’s moderate detriment, Eklund’s powerful performance is nonetheless tragic and captivating.
All in all, Errors of the Human Body is a solid medical thriller that, in eschewing buckets of blood for interpersonal conflicts and personal tragedy, mostly pays dividends. Its bleak cinematography is notable and makes impressive work of cold blues, blacks, grays, and the unfriendly sterility of the film’s main setting that deftly complements Geoff’s inner emptiness. (Brief early forays into surrealist territory are largely abandoned in the second half, which disappointed me, but to each his own.) Most of all, Michael Eklund’s performance is not to be missed, one of the finer examples of acting that I witnessed during my time at Fantastic Fest, forcefully dragging a decent film into the territory of ‘good’.