'Possessor' review: Pardon me while I borrow your cranium

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A clever, crazy-gory second feature from writer-director Brandon Cronenberg, “Possessor” points to a young filmmaker indebted to the work of his famous father: “Scanners,” “Dead Ringers” and “A History of Violence” maestro David Cronenberg. The film, however, goes its own way with some usefully berserk imagery. It’s the work of someone who knows the value of both pure cinema and copious viscera.

“Possessor” is in select theaters starting Friday and then begins streaming on various platforms Nov. 6. But in any venue, outside or indoors, you may find yourself wincing while perma-raising your eyebrows 30 seconds into the picture.

An unwitting assassin (Gabrielle Graham) inserts a long, thick needle into her own cranium in close-up. This connects her remotely but very intimately to the woman inhabiting her mind and controlling her actions: Vos (Andrea Riseborough), overseen by Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh). It’s as if “Avatar” made a hard right turn and ran headlong into “The Parallax View.”

Vos may be Girder’s “star performer,” as she calls her, but she’s a star at risk. There would be no movie here without the psychological and physical damage endured by the assassination bureau’s ringer. Vos’s life is a sad, depleted affair, with an ex-husband (Rossif Sutherland) and a young son (Gage Graham-Arbuthnot) living with reach but rightly wary of Vos’s air of desolation.

Meantime, there’s a lucrative new job to be done. This one involves taking over the brain of Tate (Christopher Abbott), the future son-in-law of a sniveling data-harvesting mogul (Sean Bean). Girder’s client wants the mogul dead; at the close of each assignment Vos, working remotely in headgear that appears to come from the designer of the gynecological equipment featured in “Dead Ringers,” gives the order — “Pull me out” — and then commits suicide.

But what if the assassin loses her nerve and can’t do it? “Possessor” answers that question. The result isn’t easy viewing in the “ooh! exciting!” realm of more conventional mind-control thrillers. But the best of Cronenberg’s nightmare is pure, imaginative immersion. As Vos experiences flashbacks to stabbings (the movie’s full of ’em) she has committed by way of Tate’s mind, and body, editor Matthew Hannam attacks the screen with deft, eye-blink-quick images of her memories. The movie takes its violence seriously, mostly, and by making it seem and feel like too much for Vos to bear, there’s a moral chill to the story.

The designers and director Cronenberg conspire to make various shades of crimson a motif, from Vos’s dried-blood-toned overcoat, to a blaring bright red set of luggage. The actors find the right wavelength of tension throughout, with Abbott’s body-snatched Tate gradually taking over the grim, methodical action. The final third of this grim, accomplished film felt sluggish to me; just when he might’ve profitably gone crazier with the scenario, and the storytelling rhythm, Cronenberg putters and lets the audience get out ahead of the developments.

It’s nonetheless worth seeing. Note: This is “Possessor Uncut,” the even-rougher edition. At the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, one reviewer described the film’s world premiere as “the most brutal and unforgiving cinematic experience in recent memory.” That seems excessive; then again, many will find the film excessive. Personally I found the close-ups of people vaping harder to handle, but I’m funny that way.

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‘POSSESSOR UNCUT’

3 stars (out of 4)

No MPAA rating (violence, nudity, sexual content, drug use; it’s right on the R/NC-17 borderline)

Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes

Premieres: In select theaters Friday; streaming Nov. 6.

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