Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Unrated, 103 minutes
Directed by: Brandon Cronenberg
Filmmaker Brandon Cronenberg’s POSSESSOR UNCUT is indeed bloody, bold and at times grotesque, though it’s nothing compared to the deliciously depraved, stomach-churning offerings from other horror masters (like Clive Barker, or even Cronenberg’s own father David). This creatively compelling picture has other intentions in mind. His aesthetics and story, revolving around a woman who takes her job way too personally, are uncompromisingly graphic and gory – tying together commentary on voyeurism, identity and our own destructive urges. This freaky feature’s unflinching nature fittingly plays like an out-of-body experience that engages the senses and creeps under the skin.
Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is an elite corporate assassin trained to go into the minds of others using brain implant technology to control their bodies and exterminate high profile targets. She’s a star performer who’s always been able to separate her own reality from that of her temporary avatar’s. However, recently she’s been getting sloppy, feeling memories fusing together and empathy clouding her precise vision. The detrimental effects have bled over into her personal life, affecting her relationships with ex-husband Michael (Rossif Sutherland) and young son Ira (Gage Graham-Arbuthnot). They don’t know what she does for work since she stretches the truth, only telling them she’s traveling for business.
Her handler, psychologist Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), has turned a blind eye to Tasya’s troubles in order to line her up for a promotion that would pull her out of field duty. Things begin to go awry on what’s to be Tasya’s final job, an easy double murder-suicide of high-ranking executive John (Sean Bean) and his spoiled daughter Ava (Tuppence Middleton) at the hands of Ava’s disgruntled fiancée Colin (Christopher Abbott). The hit woman with a heart has a crisis of conscience while in her host’s body, leaving her unmoored and in danger. This secret hitjob was to line up Tasya’s corporate overlords’ unethical practices with that of her target’s, paving the way for a business merger. But her predicament causes a disruption – and it’s highly entertaining to watch her free herself from her burden.
Riseborough is a remarkably transformative actress – a chameleon slipping easily into the skin of her character. She makes the narrative’s grounded sci-fi unreality feel real and lived-in. From her unassuming platinum blond hairdo to her ghost-like pallor, Tasya’s washed-out look is similar to a video screen into which company clients project their own images. This is not to say her character doesn’t exhibit any color emotionally or psychologically. She absolutely does. And her struggles and conflicts inform how others view her. The scene where she rehearses mundane conversational replies before dining with her family clues us into how she handles her work-life balance (ahem, not well). And through nuanced cues in her performance, we can spot how she cautiously calculates what psychological degradation Tasya allows her supervisor to see.
Riseborough and Abbott share a noteworthy, tangible connection in how their characters’ identities fuse. When she’s not on screen he carries some of her subtle mannerisms through into his refined, deliberate performance. His work contains a purposefully chilly detachment not solely to give Colin an edge, but to subconsciously remind the audience of the parasitic relationship forming inside his brain. The subtle tightrope walk is masterfully handled. Plus, Leigh turns in a memorable supporting role, infusing her slippery character with intrigue and gravitas.
The disturbing imagery Cronenberg concocts is conducted in a perfectly precise manner. Tasya’s delusions and realities are nerve-rattling the way they’re layered in and build to a crescendo. He plays around with camera angles, tilting the perspective to indicate the protagonist’s off-kilter world. The body-swap, body horror elements are there. The gruesomeness grows more apparent once Tasya submits to her id’s killer and sexual compulsions, finding release in another person’s body, thus reinforcing the commentary on the destruction of the ego and superegos. Of course, there are easy gross-outs too. An eye is stabbed with a fireplace poker, fingers are severed and a dildo makes a cameo.
It’s intensely focused on the duo’s psyche, evident in the trippy sequences using strobing lights and color theory to propel our understanding of these characters’ conundrums. When Tasya experiences a total meltdown inside Colin’s mind, it’s visually contextualized with brilliant panache, flipping back and forth between the actors’ images combining, wearing a skin-like mask, insinuating she’s a shell of human being. Cronenberg returns to this idea of merging identities a few times, and each time the visuals are distinct. He also takes risks in his execution of the unpredictable, compelling third act. There’s one choice (one I don’t want to spoil) that most modern filmmakers decidedly don’t do.
Outside of the violence, perhaps the most unnerving aspect is how Cronenberg treats the erosion of ethics and morals, both in the professional and personal landscapes. The atmosphere – clearly condoning it in its depiction – speaks to its normalization in the corporate environment, bleeding into other facets of life. The auteur blessedly doesn’t go overboard on these sentiments, leaving us to decipher their destructiveness to humanity.
POSSESSOR UNCUT will be in select theaters and drive-ins on October 2.