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Andrea Riseborough stars in Brandon Cronenberg's Possessor.Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

  • Possessor Uncut
  • Written and directed by Brandon Cronenberg
  • Starring Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott and Jennifer Jason Leigh
  • Classification R; 103 minutes


3 out of 4 stars

In many ways, the alternate-universe Toronto depicted in Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor is preferable to the one that exists today. Nobody is physically distancing or wearing masks, and for reasons left unexplained, everyone drives spiffy vintage cars that look like they were teleported over from the 1950s. Then again, this Toronto, which Cronenberg tells me is a portrait of an alt-2008 metropolis, is rife with dangers all its own. Absolutely everyone vapes. Inside the CBC’s familiar downtown headquarters resides not our national broadcaster, but a virtual-reality-based corporation with eyes on controlling the world through bedroom-decor-purchasing algorithms. Oh, and there’s also a mysterious network of assassins who can take over your brain, using any random schlub’s body to carry out vicious murders. So, you know, it evens out.

Still, maybe those Torontonians with weak stomachs will want to stay in the city they know and tolerate, given that Cronenberg’s film is delightfully, magnificently, gut-wrenchingly gross. Throats are slashed, jaws are wrenched, eyeballs are gouged and skulls are pierced and popped with glee. The killings are crunchy and sticky and very much yeaghghghghghghghghg-inducing. Which is why Possessor is arriving with the official subtitle of “Uncut” – half a marketing gimmick to highlight the movie’s gore-hound bona fides, half a genuine disclaimer that nervous U.S. audiences have the option of viewing either an uncensored version or a slightly neutered R-rated cut (Canadian moviegoers, already incurably sick in the head, are only getting the pure, unfiltered Possessor).

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In the film, a mysterious network of assassins is able to take over people's brains, using any random person's body to carry out vicious murders.Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

The blood starts spilling early. Not a minute in, and Cronenberg treats us to an image of a hapless young waitress’s head being penetrated by an electrode, right before she strides into Toronto’s casino-dark Bisha Hotel and stabs some random big shot two dozen times. The incident is part of a virtual scheme orchestrated miles away by the brain-invading operative Tasya (Andrea Riseborough) and her boss Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who specialize in neuro-murder corporate espionage. After their victim is dispatched and the waitress, now free of Tasya’s control, is blown to bits by the cops, Cronenberg begins hacking away at the raw meat of his story, which is less about the dark thrills of contract killing and more the painful illusion of free will.

The lines between control and autonomy blur fantastically when Tasya takes on her next assignment: hijacking the mind and body of drug dealer Colin (Christopher Abbott) so that he (she?) can kill his (her?) girlfriend’s father, a callous Jeff Bezos type (Sean Bean) who operates that dystopic corporation on Front Street. Naturally, things don’t go as expected, with Colin proving to be a powerfully resistant host and Tasya’s own complex feelings toward her estranged family further complicating her attempted separation of mind and body, survival and submission.

Cronenberg illustrates this tension in a wonderfully abstract fashion, stretching skin and melting faces under the glare of toxically yellow camera flares. And by employing digital technology only in the margins of the film – most of the effects are done in-camera – the liminal and extremely un-real world that exists between the minds of Colin and Tasya becomes startlingly present and tactile. The moment where Colin literally encases himself inside the face of Tasya is horrifying, certainly, but also beautiful.

If this all sounds like the body-horror daydreams of another, more established filmmaker named Cronenberg, then you’re not too far off. While Brandon has stressed in interviews that he pays no mind to comparisons between his work and that of his father – “It’s something inescapable ... I’m just making films that are honest to my own creative impulses and interests,” he told me – it is hard to dismiss the influence that David has had.

Aside from the family’s shared affinity for finding new and novel ways of ripping bodies apart, there are noticeable echoes between the generations on everything from operating-room theatricality (Dead Ringers) to how best to depict technology (the Cronenbergs appear to have settled on an aesthetic I’m going to dub Clunky Futurama). Brandon even casts David’s eXistenZ star Leigh, in a not-dissimilar role.

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Jennifer Jason Leigh, left, plays a similiar role to her part in eXistenZ, which was directed by Cronenberg's famous father, David.Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

Yet Possessor also showcases a commitment to craft and focus on performance that establish Brandon’s singular vision and approach. Every shot is purposeful and intricate, and every actor’s on-screen moment pitched just right. In having to navigate such a head-tripping concept, Abbott and Riseborough could have easily gotten lost, or even slid into detached comedy. Here, both bounce off each other with a careful fury, their director wringing twin performances that swallow the other whole.

There is a pervading messiness, though, and not just in the amount of red goop splashed across the screen. Colin’s relationship with his girlfriend (Tuppence Middleton) seems ripe for a few scenes' worth of further exploration, just as there is much about Bean’s character and his empire that is frustratingly left off-script (apparently, earlier drafts were much, much longer). And one of the final shots, which I won’t spoil except to say that it involves lots of blood (surprise!), induced a certain kind of disaffected eye-roll.

But like Tasya, Possessor succeeds in getting under your skin. If this is just a taste of what Brandon Cronenberg has in store for cinema, then long live the new flesh.

Possessor Uncut opens in select Canadian theatres Oct. 2

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