by Adam Frazier
October 9, 2020
A body-penetrating, mind-controlling horror-thriller that exists somewhere between Scanners, Beyond The Black Rainbow, and Upgrade, Possessor is the second feature film by visionary writer-director Brandon Cronenberg, son of David and Carolyn. The Toronto native made his original debut with 2012’s Antiviral, about a tech company that sells celebrity illnesses to obsessed fans. With the same gruesome verve as his father David — one of the originators of the body horror subgenre to begin with — Cronenberg’s work often explores body modification, infection, technology, and interweaving of the psychological with the physical. With Possessor, he digs even deeper into the “new flesh” to tell a story about identity in this digital age.
Andrea Riseborough stars in Cronenberg’s Possessor as Tasya Vos, an elite corporate assassin who uses brain-implant technology to hijack the bodies of others to execute high-profile targets. After each mission, Tasya awakens in her own body and must undergo evaluation from her handler, Girder (Academy Award-nominee Jennifer Jason Leigh), who steers the body-jumping contract killer back into her own identity. Like in Christopher Nolan’s Inception, where “extractors” perform corporate espionage using experimental dream tech, and the aforementioned Scanners, in which a private military company recruits individuals with telepathic and telekinetic powers as spies and assassins, Possessor explores the extent corporations are willing to go to protect their assets and conquer (and remove) rivals.
Tasya’s next mission has her inhabiting the body of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott, seen in It Comes At Night), whose office job at a company called Zoothroo allows him to invade the privacy of other people via electronic devices to create personalized advertising profiles. Colin’s fiancée Ava (Tuppence Middleton) is the daughter of Tasya’s target — the data-mining conglomerate’s CEO, John Parse (Sean Bean). The idea is for Tasya to “possess” Colin and use his body to then kill John, Ava, and himself, so that John’s step-son (Christopher Jacot) can inherit the company and take over instead. There’s just one problem: Tasya’s mind is disintegrating from the trauma of countless brutal murders and body takeovers, setting the stage for everything (including her sanity) to unravel as she inhabits Colin’s body.
Possessor is a phantasmagoric fever dream from another dimension. After all these jobs, Tasya has lost the ability to fully control her host’s bodies, allowing Colin to take command and see her thoughts and memories. Colin’s attempts to regain control of his own body mixes with Tasya’s confused desires about her own life, particularly concerning her estranged husband (Rossif Sutherland) and young son (Gage Graham-Arbuthnot). Thematically, Cronenberg is interested in manufactured identities — that we create a narrative, selecting key events that characterize us and organizing them in the form of an origin story. Tasya has spent so much time living other people’s lives that she’s forgotten the details of her own narrative, making her susceptible to manipulation.
Visually, these concepts are conveyed thanks to some stunningly psychotropic in-camera lighting tricks from cinematographer Karim Hussain, and nightmarish practical effects work from special effects guru Daniel Martin. In one unshakeable sequence, Tasya melts away slowly and reforms as Colin. Behind the scenes, hollow wax shells of the actors’ bodies are subjected to heat, so they slowly break down on camera. The final product is as bewildering and uncomfortable as anything you’ve seen in the body horror genre. Liquified flesh drips upward as Tasya melts away to nothing, reborn drip-by-drip as Colin. A thousand faces scream in unison as the camera slides through a tunnel of slick, pink viscera. Everything — identity, gender, reality — in Cronenberg’s world is fluid, porous, and penetrable. It’s really quite something, and the fact that all the effects in Possessor were achieved in-camera makes it all the more impressive and shockingly real.
However, Cronenberg’s ghastly conjurings would be incomplete without the strong performances necessary to make you relate to the otherworldly story. Riseborough’s Tasya is distant, subdued, and frightening as a cipher searching for a sense of self. An early scene sees her outside her husband’s home, rehearsing what she’ll say to seem like a loving and engaged wife & mother. Abbott has the daunting task of having two vastly different personalities inside him, shifting gender subtly to convey Tasya’s body language while maintaining the mystery of who’s really in control in a given moment. This push-and-pull relationship is the backbone of the film, and it’s fascinating to watch Riseborough & Abbot work together to create two separate characters inhabiting the same body. Also great is Jennifer Jason Leigh, whose character is meant to remind us of her turn in David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, in which she designs a VR game for a biomechanical console.
While it doesn’t entirely fulfill its potential — I wish the world and the technology created for the work was explored further — Possessor is without question one of the best films of 2020, and that’s saying quite a bit honestly. While there haven’t been many mainstream theatrical releases this year, the neverending garbage fire that is 2020 has brought us several fantastic genre movies, including Uncle Peckerhead, The Vast of Night, VFW, The Invisible Man, and Color Out of Space. Cronenberg has so much potential as a filmmaker — he has a unique voice and vision, and I look forward to being irreversibly scarred by whatever he births.
Adam’s Rating: 4 out of 5
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