Brandon Cronenberg made his feature film debut in 2012 with Antiviral, an unsettling exploration of a world in which society becomes so obsessed with celebrities that they seek viruses that have previously passed through popular performers to infect themselves, just to share such an intimate connection with their idols. It was a disturbing prediction of things to come, which blended some high-concept ideas with disturbing visuals to cement himself as a filmmaker to watch. Almost a decade later, the filmmaker offers audiences his follow-up endeavor, Possessor Uncut, serving more as a throwback to classic detective tales, featuring some of the year's most gruesome gore, which enriches the relatively expected narrative to a frightening degree.
In the not-too-distant future, technology has advanced to the point of allowing someone to insert their consciousness into another person's body, affording them the opportunity to manipulate that individual however they so desire. This tech has been embraced by an organization that carries out assassinations in ways too convincing to have any sort of foul play considered. Accomplished assassin Tasya (Andrea Riseborough) accepts a mission to enter the body of tech employee Colin (Christopher Abbott), though her grip on reality begins to slip while Colin's psyche struggles to be subdued, as the pair attempt to overpower the other to maintain control of Colin's body.
Cinematic narratives featuring attempts to control the body of someone else are far from being fresh territory, with Colin's quest to obtain control over his own body and detective work to find out what's happening to him resulting in a cat-and-mouse game we've seen countless times. For as often as we see such stories unfold, we also see narratives that aim to offer unique twists on such stories, with Possessor being refreshing for how little it does to try to reinvent the concept. As the mysteries of the film unfold, you'll surely be reminded of experiences like Being John Malkovich or Inception, but rather than attempt to surprise the viewer with unexpected or complex mythos to support the concept, only minimal explanation is offered, adding a timeless element to the journey. One sequence involving Colin's use of VR and surveillance equipment does inject a semblance of realism to the concept, teasing that we're only a few years off from such the opportunities presented in the film becoming feasible, yet it only slightly grounds a film that didn't necessarily need any grounding.
The nature of the story requires both Riseborough and Abbott to depict nearly constant states of bewilderment and shock, with both performers conveying the perfect blend of mystified and subdued reactions to invoke empathy to their situations. Abbott has to do more of the heavy lifting, having not only to convey the actual Colin but also the Tasya acting as Colin, with vacant facial expressions staying subtle in situations where he could have played up potential confusion. The supporting cast of Sean Bean, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tuppence Middleton are all unsurprisingly effective, though it's Abbott's muted reactions that sell the premise.
At its core, the overall trajectory of Possessor doesn't necessarily hold any surprises, but Cronenberg's vision for the journey is what really elevates the pulpy journey. The filmmaker often embraces low-tech elements to convey highly cerebral themes, whether we are seeing Tasya's body physically melt as her mind enters Colin's body or as the battle between the two personas is realized as the characters attempt to overpower one another in a manifestation of existential spaces. While other films envisioning such advanced technology would likely craft visually engaging pieces of equipment, Cronenberg's ideas of such devices aren't much more advanced than picturing someone plugging a pair of headphones into a stereo.
What truly makes this experience a standout is its "Uncut" nature. The film premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, with this Uncut version of the film retaining the intense violence of that debut screening, while an R-rated cut of Possessor will also be made available, holding back on some of the more brutal components of the concept. However, it was that brutality and those visceral visuals that really elevated the experience beyond the anticipated twists and turns of the narrative, so it's difficult to deduce if a tamer version of the film will be as effective.
Possessor Uncut doesn't reinvent the wheel of the twisted murder-mystery genre, but by merely being a competent entry into that lexicon after countless entries have tread redundant ground makes the film a welcome new installment, while the visuals and overall unrelenting brutality make for a hypnotic and harrowing gauntlet, further cementing Cronenberg as one of the most promising filmmakers in genre storytelling.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Possessor Uncut lands in select theaters and drive-ins on October 2nd.