Review by Rich Cline | 4/5

dir-scr Brandon Cronenberg
prd Niv Fichman, Andrew Starke, Kevin Krikst, Fraser Ash
with Christopher Abbott, Andrea Riseborough, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rossif Sutherland, Tuppence Middleton, Sean Bean, Tiio Horn, Raoul Bhaneja, Gage Graham-Arbuthnot, Rachael Crawford, Hrant Alianak, Gabrielle Graham
release US/Can 2.Oct.20,
UK Oct.20 lff
20/Canada 1h43

riseborough leigh middleton
london film fest

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Echoing the work of his father David, writer-director Brandon Cronenberg weaves intriguing themes into a compelling horror movie that's both sexy and hyper-grisly. Ideas of identity and free will swirl through each scene, punctuated with wildly inventive visual touches that disorient the audience, keeping us on our toes. The film's unsettling tone and pulsing pace are darkly riveting, and the inventiveness of the premise makes it impossible to predict.
In a secret organisation, Tasya (Riseborough) is an operative who uses brain-implant technology to take over someone's body and murder corporate rivals. While she's especially skilled at this, it leaves her with debilitating memories that are straining her relationship with her academic husband Michael (Sutherland) and bright son Ira (Graham-Arbuthnot). Even so, her boss Girder (Leigh) gives her a new assignment to take over Colin (Abbott), then in two days go mad and kill his fiancee Ava (Middleton) and her father John (Bean), who runs a competing business. But Tasya's increasing unsteadiness threatens this mission.
Cronenberg peppers little references throughout the film to explore various ways people try to control each other and the world around them, whether through words, actions or virtual reality. Tasya's preparations for her work involve observing her target and learning their speech patterns, relational connections and other details, so she can inhabit them convincingly. Her transition into Colin is depicted with a properly freaky effects montage. And her operation naggingly refuses to progress the way it's supposed to.

Because of the nature of the narrative, it's Abbott's performance that becomes a seriously unnerving tour-de-force, depicting Tasya's struggle with her own demons as she begins to lose control of Colin's consciousness. This also involves Riseborough in harrowing cutaways. And it's remarkable that both actors keep the character sympathetic, even with her grotesquely over-the-top approach as an assassin. Roles around them are understated but pungent, from Leigh's matter-of-fact manager to Middleton's suspicious girlfriend and Bean's arrogant executive.

Even with the story's much larger themes, this remains a grippingly internalised thriller, which adds to the suspense at each step along the way. Cronenberg is gleefully pushing the boundaries of what we expect in a movie like this, contrasting the inner emotions with unflinchingly graphic grisliness. It's an bold approach that most filmmakers shy far away from. So we're pulled deeper than expected into the story, especially as the final act spins things so much further that we're almost afraid to watch. Which turns this into one of the most provocative hitman movies imaginable.

cert 18 themes, language, violence, sexuality 6.Sep.20

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© 2020 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall