Synopsis: An elite, corporate assassin uses brain-implant technology takes control of other people’s bodies to execute high profile targets.
Stars: Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tuppence Middleton, Rossif Sutherland, Sean Bean
Director: Brandon Cronenberg
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review: Anytime someone decides to call themselves a fan of something, it often comes with some kind unspoken limit to how far they are willing to go to show their appreciation. I mean, it’s natural for a music lover to say they love The Rolling Stones, but would you camp out for two days in the rain for only the chance to buy tickets to a sold-out concert of theirs? Or do you want that new iPhone that goes on sale at 3:30am so badly that you’ll set your alarm for 3:25 so you’re up and ready to purchase? For horror films and the viewers that can’t get enough frights, there’s a similar line in the sand that many won’t cross, a personal run for the hills boundary it’s just too nightmarish to pass.
For me, the “body horror” genre is one that makes me squirm like no other and for the uninitiated it is defined as the intentional showcase of graphic or psychologically disturbing violations of the human body. It’s sometimes referred to more crudely as “torture porn” when applied to the less sophisticated entries that have been produced within the last decade; think grotesque films like The Human Centipede or the disturbingly misogynistic Hostel series. That’s a huge step down from its origins in Canadian cinema and director David Cronenberg. It was his landmark films Rabid, Shivers, and even his 80s remake of The Fly that gave the body horror genre a gross but good reputation.
In the new film Possessor Uncut, a torch has been passed in this icky subgenre and in a sort of Shakespearean twist, the mantle has gone from father to son. Directed by Brandon Cronenberg, the Canadian production has the same look, feel, energy, and shock of the work of his father and while you can spot the influences of his famous lineage throughout the intense film you also see a filmmaker with his own vocabulary coming forth. I’d heard the buzz about this film long before it ever crossed my screening doorstep and it truly worried me. The gore and extreme nature sounded like a true test of will and though these type of early reactions often prove to be exaggerations of overly excitable first-lookers, for once they weren’t too far off the mark. This is a horrifying experience that infiltrates your nervous system for days after…but it’s also a real thrill; the kind of elegant top shelf genre picture that gives you exactly what it promises and says “You asked for it”.
In the not too distant future, a cutting edge tech company has found a unique method of assassination they sell to the highest bidder, or whatever conglomeration they might be able to use later to their advantage. There is now a way for trained killers to plug into the brains of host subjects that have intimate access to those targeted for death and use them to carry out the evil deed. The host is often self-terminated, the real killers final act before unplugging in their sleek lab offices miles away, leaving no way to trace the vicious act back to anyone – the perfect set-up. It’s a relatively simple one, too, and Cronenberg doesn’t spend a huge amount of time trying to explain the science behind it, preferring to let the audience piece the process together for themselves based off of what we learn from Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight) as she debriefs star assassin Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough, Oblivion) after the film’s shocking opening.
It’s obvious from the start that while the method to this madness seems smooth on paper, the mental and physical toll it takes to come back from each job blurs the lines of reality more and more with each task completed. Tasya is estranged from her husband (Rossif Sutherland, A Call to Spy) and child and her visit to them early on is one of strained awkwardness, you almost get the sense that at this point she’s more comfortable in someone else’s skin than her own. She’s also been straying from her normal routine when working as her host, becoming more interested in her victims and taking liberties with her directives on the best way to quickly eliminate her target.
Ignoring the warning signs that she may be maxxed out and despite the protestations of a concerned Girder, Tasya jumps into another job, this time taking over the body of a man (Christopher Abbott, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot) who is set to marry the daughter (Tuppence Middleton, Fisherman’s Friends) of a wealthy CEO (Sean Bean, The Martian). With three days to carry out her mission, the job seems to be going as planned…until she’s unable to maintain the balance between her host personality and her own, both of which are strong-willed and fighting for survival. This leads to a sinewy split between the two and devastating consequences for anyone that gets close to either.
In a number of violent films, you look back in retrospect and see that they aren’t as violent or gore-filled as you remember, it’s just the suggestion of it all that led your mind to fill in the blanks for you. In Possessor Uncut (a curious name change from its original plain ‘ole Possessor, likely as it’s being released without a rating to avoid that dreaded NC-17), there’s no punches pulled and you not only see every brutal stab, slice, crack, and rip…you feel it. The camera lingers on these moments, almost daring you to turn away and while it’s an endurance test to be sure (those with a fear of seeing teeth knocked out…you’ve been warned) it’s strangely not as horrific as it might be made out to be. Remember, this is coming from the critic that normally recoils from this type of stuff. I had to look away a few times, no question, but I think I had built it up to be far worse than it ends up being.
I’m hoping others give it that same chance too because there are some deeply good performances on top of Cronenberg’s inventive work as a director on display. Riseborough continues to be an actress that pushes herself with each role, unafraid to go to ugly places or change her appearance with each new part, She’s actually absent for a good chunk of the film when she’s inhabiting Abbott but her presence seems to always haunt the scenes she isn’t there for. In many ways, she reminds me of Leigh’s work throughout the years (no shocker that Leigh has worked with David Cronenberg before in the semi-similar but not as intense, eXistenZ, from 1999) and Leigh seems to have found a kindred spirit with Riseborough. Their scenes together are low-key but pulsating with energy. Abbott has to do a lot of bold things here a number of actors in his generation wouldn’t get near, he carries it off well, understanding the difference between his body being possessed (which it isn’t) and controlled (which it is) and that helps the audience along with buying into the far-out concept.
I don’t often encourage people to watch the trailer for a film because they are so spoiler-y but the first trailer for Possessor Uncut is pretty good about giving you a decent idea of what you’re in for. If you think you can handle it…go for it. I can’t imagine seeing this on the big screen, honestly, the visuals would be just too overwhelming but for a late night viewing at home where you have the freedom to hide under the blanket, Possessor Uncut will work like a charm. Even though it’s drenched it blood and body parts, it’s a classy affair with the son of a renowned horror director ably stepping forward into the spotlight in a major way.