Brandon Cronenberg’s ‘Possessor’ Switches Identities for a Smart and Shocking Thriller

Assassins and out-of-body experiences are familiar to any fan of action and science fiction. These subjects are immortal standards for imagining the future. But rarely are they used so originally and graphically as in “Possessor Uncut.” The original title of this absorbing thriller was simply “Possessor,” and it should have stayed that way. But for whatever reason, director Brandon Cronenberg has allowed an “Uncut” to be added to hype its edginess. Yet the film has no need for such promotional antics. It’s an intelligent, visceral experience, with a vision that justifies its more gory features. “Possessor” opens in select cities, and while it’s crafty cinema, we encourage readers to take any and all safety precautions before planning to attend any screenings.

Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is a corporate assassin who carries out missions via brain implant technology. Essentially, she is connected into the membrane of her targets, taking over their bodies to carry out schemes that eventually result in their extermination. However, her sense for mental manipulation seems to be slipping. Overruling these concerns, her superior, Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), assigns her a new target. It is a complicated job involving getting into the mind of Colin (Christopher Abbott), who is currently dating the daughter of a billionaire named John Parse (Sean Bean). The plan involves murder and lucrative gains for the corporation hiring Tasya. But once she embarks on the mission, things go awry and she begins to feel resistance from Colin, which could also threaten the very physical being of Tasya herself. 

Cronenberg’s ingenious screenplay is a starting point for a work of unnerving and exciting cinematic craft. It is also proof of director DNA being passed down the family tree since Cronenberg is the son of David Cronenberg, the legendary master of grotesque, bold experiments like “The Fly” and “Videodrome.” Like dad, this Cronenberg knows how to expertly create atmosphere through shock. In the opening scenes one of Tasya’s latest hosts inserts a needle into her scalp, and we get a close-up of oozing blood as the tool goes in. Surely much of the attention towards this film will be its violence, which include brutal stabbings, the savage beating of someone with a fireplace poker (watch out for the scooped eyeball) and one shooting at the end that will undeniably elicit gasps because of the victim. Anatomy is an obsession of the Cronenbergs, but not in the sense of exploitation. This is a filmmaker who understands how to use anatomy as something both beautiful and frightening. Cronenberg’s own feature debut was 2012’s “Antiviral,” about a future where obsessed fans pay to be afflicted with their favorite celebrity’s illness. We fear pain and wounds, because our bodies are our very living machines. The plot of the movie hints that taking over someone’s mind is a doubly frightening prospect, not only because of the psychological implications, but because of what it would mean for your body. In the tradition of films like “Strange Days,” what Cronenberg imagines feels vivid and stark, because none of it has a fantastical tone. Even the gadget used to try and assess how Tasya is doing inside of Colin looks like a stripped radio. You feel like this is how such a project would be carried out if it were ever possible.

“Possessor Uncut” has a dual atmosphere that flows impeccably well. On one level it’s a violent thriller with Colin wandering around as a potential killer with two minds jousting inside one person. After the plot involving Parse takes sudden, bloody swerves, it becomes a twisted mental puzzle with hallucinatory sequences worthy of David Lynch. With the help of composer Jim Williams, Cronenberg never resorts to action clichés, but focuses on turning the movie into an enveloping nightmare. Disturbing imagery embody the idea of Tasya and Colin both fighting for this body, including a scene which is now the main poster image of one figure wearing someone else’s face. Genders and names switch around, identities become meaningless. Earlier in the film Tasya as Colin has no qualms about having sex with Colin’s girlfriend, and she herself has a family and kids outside in her own reality. Brandon Cronenberg has also inherited the family eye for pristine compositions where cold exteriors and clean, upper class homes take on a threatening air. Slick surfaces contrast powerfully with sudden eruptions of blood and violence. 

Few directors combine a sense for the gruesome with smart filmmaking like what Cronenberg displays in “Possessor Uncut.” This is a film with violence in its story, it’s not a plot driven by gore. What is more disturbing and effective is the concept Cronenberg drives home about being trapped inside a body that isn’t your own and the way Tasya and Colin’s memories and thoughts begin to wash into each other, even as the stakes are raised with the body count. This is how it transcends its genre trappings, challenging the audience to think about the characters’ choices and to feel the stress of entrapment.

“Possessor Uncut” shames lazier thrillers. It’s bold and memorable, shocking and pulled off with actual thought. Cronenberg may be the heir to a great director, but he himself proves again he has a unique voice all his own. This uncut version of his latest is a vicious trip of both mind and body.

Possessor Uncut” releases Oct. 2 in select cities.