Possessor Uncut

Brandon Cronenberg is a chip off the old block. He's the son of David Cronenberg, the master of body horror responsible for films such as Shivers, Videodrome, and Scanners. The younger Cronenberg delivers some body horror of his own with his second feature, Possessor Uncut. “Uncut” refers to the fact that the film, which is sometimes jaw-droppingly violent, hasn't been altered since its buzzed-about debut at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. You need a strong constitution to get through this movie, but if you can take it, you'll find one of the most harrowing and provocative horror films of the decade.

Andrea Riseborough plays an assassin named Tasya Vos. Her method of killing is non-traditional, to say the least. The company she works for has developed technology that allows their agents to inhabit the minds of other people, taking over their bodies in order to commit the face-to-face dirty work. It's a process that's starting to take a toll on Tasya. An occupational hazard of pushing aside her own psyche is that she has trouble reorienting herself after a job. Remembering that she's separated from her husband and finding ways to connect with her young son have become complicated. Professional wear-and-tear has also made her fail to pull the trigger on her last few jobs.

Tasya's boss, Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), gives her another chance to prove herself, assigning her to inhabit Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott). He's engaged to Ava Parce (Tuppence Middleton), whose father John (Sean Bean) is the CEO of a data-harvesting company. Possessor Uncut intentionally doesn't go into much detail about why John is being targeted; we just know he's rich and mean. Colin is not a typical avatar, though. Sensing that an outsider is messing with his head from the inside, he starts fighting back. In her already compromised state, Tasya is now in genuine danger from the psychological warfare Colin drags her into.

The back half of Possessor Uncut zeroes in on the battle for Colin's mind and body. Cronenberg intermittently uses disturbing visual effects to convey how the two main characters are struggling for control. Early scenes show Tasya's face melting, only to re-congeal into Colin. Once he catches on, though, we're treated to a dazzling, borderline disgusting montage of their faces in disarray, with features out of order or blending into each other. This takes place amid a black background and flashing colored lights. The effect is both hypnotic and alarming.

On a deeper level, Possessor Uncut is about what it means to lose yourself. Tasya has the advantage of killing people from a distance, yet the process allowing her to do that is slowly erasing her. She spends as much time being other people as she does being herself. Colin's counterattack therefore puts her at risk of vanishing altogether, given that she's already in a vulnerable state. Real tension arises from that scenario. I like the ambiguousness of the story. Tasya commits unconscionable acts, but we empathize with her mental fragility. Colin, meanwhile, isn't necessarily the greatest guy in the world, although we understand that he didn't sign up for the experience of having his identity snatched away from him. His rage is justified, even if it also proves terrifying.

Riseborough and Abbott are actors who go deep into character in their work, making them ideal choices to star. You can feel every ounce of Tasya's misery, and Colin's anger practically leaps off the screen. Because they commit so fully to their roles, Possessor Uncut leaves viewers in a perpetual state of disturbance. I've avoided mentioning anything about the plot that might be considered a spoiler. Be prepared, though, that some very twisted, graphic events occur.

What makes the movie special is that it maintains its human center amid the scary stuff. This is a gripping, stylishly-made, and well-acted story about two people teetering on the brink of functionality, for different reasons and with different potential outcomes. Their bodies and minds both go through hell. Watching it happen is every bit as intense as a balls-to-the-wall horror movie should be.

out of four

Possessor Uncut is unrated, but contains adult language and strong graphic violence. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.