As with all review-caps, MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD. You’ve been warned.
In writing this review for writer/director Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor Uncut, I originally wanted to stay away from mentioning his father David Cronenberg‘s legendary filmography (1986’s The Fly, 1988’s Dead Ringers and, my personal favorite, 2007’s Eastern Promises). But since Possessor Uncut falls so squarely into the same realm of extreme visceral horror, my guess is that Brandon not only expects the comparison, but also welcomes it. And while I’m not sure that Possessor Uncut is entirely successful, it is an interesting and pretty crazy trip.
The flick wastes no time delving into signature Cronenberg-y body horror, with the very first scene being a woman named Holly (Gabrielle Graham) sticking a needle into the top of her head. The needle’s hooked up to a switch of some kind that seems to regulate her emotions. The more she turns the dial, the more upset she becomes. From there, Holly puts on an ugly blue track suit and joins a group of other ugly track-suited women heading to a party of some kind. She stops to pick up a knife from a buffet table and then walks up to some unknown VIP guy (Matthew Garlick) and stabs him in the neck.
But Holly doesn’t stop with one stab, or even two or three. She keeps going, long past the point of the guy being dead. She even stops to plunge her hand into the massive pool of blood and admire it before she puts the gun she’s been carrying into her mouth. “Pull me out,” is all she says. But for some reason, she’s unable to pull the trigger. So she waits for the police to show up and do it for her.
As Holly dies, another woman wakes up on a table, coming out from under some weird machine she’s been hooked up to. The woman is Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), a “possessor.” She’s a secret agent of sorts, whose job is to inhabit the minds of others in order to carry out assassinations. After she pukes and recovers from the experience of being inside Holly’s brain, Tasya goes through an evaluation led by her boss, known only as Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Girder has Tasya look at various personal objects — like a pipe that belonged to her grandfather and a butterfly she mounted — and recount the memory associated with each, to prove that Tasya is still herself.
Tasya passes the interview but then forgets that she’s separated from her husband, Michael (Rossif Sutherland). So, clearly the work’s affecting her more than she lets on. But Tasya insists she’s fine, and that all she needs is a little time with her young son, Ira (Gage Graham-Arbuthnot). Girder notes the problematic memory and the fact that Tasya killed the target in such a vicious, personal way when she was given a gun to do the job cleanly. But Girder also seems willing to ignore the red flags given that their next assignment is a big one and Tasya is her best agent.
So Tasya returns to her ex’s house but delays actually going up to the door until she’s rehearsed being herself — practicing greeting her son, practicing being happy — which is pretty creepy to watch. And she puts on a successful show, living a “normal” life for a couple of days, being a happy mother and a loving wife, and her family having no idea what she does for a living. But when Michael asks her to move back in with them, Tasya’s reaction is less than enthused. In fact, she looks scared. She’s only too willing to go back to work.
Girder fills her in on the assignment: Tasya will take over the mind of a guy named Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), who himself is no one in particular. In fact, he’s a schmuck. But his connections make him a perfect host. His girlfriend, Ava (Tuppence Middleton), is the daughter of a major data-mining corporation’s CEO, John Parse (Sean Bean). Girder’s been hired to put an agent into Colin’s head and get him to murder both him and Ava.
Tasya spends some time spying on Colin. Studying his moves, his voice, mannerisms and his interactions with Ava, in the exact same way she did before going home — which makes it all the more disturbing. Then it’s time for Tasya to get wired up and go in, and Girder warns her that they only have three days to complete the job before the host rejects her.
Tasya goes through the transfer in a crazy montage — one of many during the flick, all disjointed, trippy and strobe-y (seriously, this flick is definitely not for anybody prone to seizures). Tasya wakes up in Colin’s body, and everything seems OK. But Ava notices almost immediately that Colin’s acting differently. So apparently, Tasya didn’t spend quite enough time practicing. The charade continues, and Colin/Tasya goes to work at the company Ava’s dad owns, which makes him even more of a schmuck. He puts on his uniform and sits down to data mine with the rest of the drones. Then Tasya suddenly seizes up, the link between her and Colin glitching bad enough that she has to leave.
Colin/Tasya goes home and hangs out with Ava and her girlfriends, drinking, drugging and zoning out to their insipid conversations. Afterward, Ava pushes Colin more about why he’s acting so weird. They end up having sex, which again results in Tasya glitching. In one particularly disconcerting shot, we see Tasya in Colin’s place, sporting her very own penis. Yow.
Then, it’s time for the assassination at a dinner party at Parse’s lavish home. (Which looks a lot like the mall at Caesar’s Palace in Vegas. Very cheesy.) Girder’s directions to Tasya are to start a fight with Parse that gets him kicked out of the house. Then, come back later and kill him and Ava. So Colin/Tasya does as instructed. But when she comes back to the house, instead of dispatching Parse quick and clean with the provided gun, Tasya again decides to go for the brutal overkill approach. She takes a fireplace poker, beats him to a pulp, and then stabs him right through the eye socket, popping his eyeball out. Yeah. Ick.
But then when it comes to Ava, Tasya uses the gun. Though instead of going for one killing shot, she shoots her a couple of times in the back and watches her crawl for a while before shooting her in the head. Again, when Tasya asks to be pulled out and puts the gun in her mouth, she can’t pull the trigger. Her link to Colin’s mind unravels even more, allowing Colin to gain more control over himself. So instead of finding some other way to commit suicide, Colin runs. He starts having flashes of Tasya’s life mixed in with his own memories. And for some reason that I can’t quite remember, Girder decides to leave Tasya in the machine rather than cut the link.
Then, Colin escapes to the apartment of one of Ava’s friends, managing to convince her to let him stay there. Big mistake on her part, since Tasya reemerges at that point and kills her while she’s in the shower. But then Colin takes over again (and every time the switch of control happens, you get one of those strobe-y montages), watches the news and realizes that he’s the suspect in all these murders. One of his work colleagues shows up to supposedly check on him, but ends up knocking Colin out. Turns out Mr. Work Buddy does tech support for Girder, and when Colin wakes up, he’s been hooked up to a bunch of machines.
So Mr. Work Buddy runs tests on Colin and then starts some other procedure that’s supposedly designed to give Tasya back her control. But in a cool, trippy, metaphoric thought/dream thing, Colin takes control by choking Tasya and crushing her skull. Then he pulls off her skin and puts her face on top of his in a mask that’s a cross between Michael Myers and the screaming, drippy-paint face from Pink Floyd: The Wall. Yeah, creepy as hell.
But while Colin has control, he’s still having flashes of Tasya’s life. He finds his way to her ex-husband’s house and starts stalking Michael and Ira. By that night, he’s gotten tired of lurking and busts his way into the house. Then, Colin puts a gun to Michael’s head and threatens Tasya (which basically looks like he’s talking to himself) that if she doesn’t show herself, he’ll kill him. Tasya does emerge then and he demands that she stop whatever it is she’s doing. But Tasya tells him that he’s the one in control now.
Here’s where it gets really confusing (as if it wasn’t confusing enough already), as Colin (I think) goes apesh*t and kills Michael. I mean, I’m assuming it was Colin, because why would Tasya kill him? But what’s weird is that when Colin kills him, he does it with a knife, stabbing him over and over and over — just like Tasya did. Then, the big surprise happens, and little Ira appears and kills Colin, stabbing him in the neck (again, just like Tasya did to that first guy). In a trippy, switchy montage, Tasya fires the gun and shoots Ira, but I’m assuming that she takes the shot before realizing who it is. Colin and Ira end up bleeding out on the floor together.
Then, in an even bigger surprise, Ira says, “Pull me out.” When Tasya wakes up on the table and they take the machine off her, she looks over and sees Girder lying beside her, hooked up to another machine. That is, she “possessed” Ira and got the poor kid killed. Now you would think that Tasya would be devastated by that, but the last scene is Tasya going through another evaluation, identifying those personal objects. When she gets to the butterfly, she says she killed it and mounted it when she was young. But she doesn’t add the fact that she felt guilty about it, like she does the first time around.
So what’s the point of it all? Well, it’s hard to say. Cronenberg makes so many statements about so many things in this trippy mind-f**k of a movie. Statements about gender fluidity, racism, sexism, sex and the homicidal impulse. Though exactly what those statements are, I’m not sure. What I mostly took away from it was the fascinating duality of the human mind — how it can be so powerful and so delicate at the same time. Strong enough to overpower someone else’s will and replace it, but also fragile enough that one thought can unravel the entire thing and how frightening that is.
I think this is the point Cronenberg makes clearest in the whole thing, because all those other ideas about all those other issues are only vaguely touched on. The flick isn’t long enough and doesn’t get deep enough into either its story or its characters to flesh out more than the barest minimum. While Riseborough and Abbott put in great performances, the majority of the flick is so chilly and emotionless it’s difficult to feel much in the way of empathy for anybody. But despite its issues, I would say that Possessor Uncut is worth a look just for the visual head trip, as long as your stomach can take it.
Written and Directed By: Brandon Cronenberg
Release Date: Oct. 2, 2020 (originally released at Sundance 2020)
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 1 hr 43 min