Pass the pea soup and endlessly spinning tops.
"The Exorcist" meets "Inception" in the head-spinning affair "Incarnate."
Aaron Eckhart plays Dr. Seth Ember, a wheelchair-using demon-buster with the power to slip into the subconsciousness of the possessed, which have been tricked by evil forces into believing the dream state is their reality.
Ember's role is to disrupt the fantasies and coax the invaded hosts to break the spell by leaving the dream. Usually that entails opening a door and jumping out a window, taking a leap of faith that the crash-landing will evict the devilish spirit. Although the Catholic church is a fan of his services, Ember is hardly religious, seeing himself as nothing more than a repo man.
Director Brad Peyton spins his tale with style and flow, switching from among reality to the dreamworld, to the tricky dreamworld-within-a-dreamworld. He really wants to make you think you're in one plane of existential consciousness when you're really in another, so it amounts to a guessing game that has you scanning the screen for clues that tip you off as to what's really going on.
The scariest among the tip-offs is the black eyes that characters in possession-fueled dream realms seem to have. Also, chillingly, clocks stand still. Peyton tends to get into trouble by establishing rules like that, only to flout them later on just to play 'gotcha' once again.
Despite its thrills sticking on the cheap side, "Incarnation" works more than it fizzles. That's much in part to Eckhart's layered, fluctuating performance, which has him slip from his usual clean-cut, strong-jawed persona to a disheveled man broken by life. The perpetually underrated actor is up for all of it.
While the movie may fall short for viewers expecting the terrifying experience promised by the trailers, those who are in the mood for its puzzle box-like mysteries inside of mysteries will have little to complain about.
"Incarnate" is a guessing game dressed up as a movie, and a firecracker of one at that. It tends to stick with you afterward in discomforting ways, having you check people for black eyes and making sure the clock is still ticking.
RATING: 3 stars out of 4.