Possessor (2020)

Brandon Cronenberg’s second film Possessor (aka Possessor: Uncut in the USA for some reason) is a disturbing and very satisfying sci-fi horror that explores ideas around selfhood and control. His follow-up to 2013’s Anti-viral has generated a buzz on the festival scene and came highly anticipated to the London Film Festival. It stars Angela Riseborough (Mandy, Nocturnal Animals) and Christopher Abbot (First Man, Vox Lux).

Brandon Cronenberg of course is the son of David, and it’s perhaps inevitable that his films will be compared to his father’s. However while Possessor, which he both wrote and directed, is a strong and disturbing body-horror the younger filmmaker is pursuing his own ideas.

The central premise of a shady private firm that hijacks or possesses people’s minds and bodies to turn them into insider corporate assassins (literally, a hostile takeover) could be straight from a 1970s paranoia thriller. In today’s world of private militias, behavioural psychology ‘nudges’ and Cambridge Analytica influences, perhaps this genre is due a resurgence. However, this film’s focus is less about globally topical concerns, more about the individual psyche.

The strange machine that Tasya uses to ‘go into’ those she controls

Riseborough plays Tasya Vos a ‘possessor’ whose latest assignment is eliminate a corporate data-mining bigman (Sean Bean) by inhabiting his son-in-law Colin Tate (Abbot) and compelling him to assassinate both the target and Colin’s wife (Ava Parse). Tasya would then jump out of Colin’s body, leaving him to take the rap for the murder. The act of bodily occupation takes its toll on the ‘possessors’ and Tasya is showing signs of psychological damage, experiencing flashbacks and hallucinations that she witholds from her boss. Despite this, she accepts the assignment, knowing that the stakes are high for this particularly profitable contract.

The bloody violence in this stylish horror is immediately striking. The special effects by Dan Martin (Color Out of Space, Lords of Chaos, Host, Girl on the Third Floor, High Rise) are very impressive; he’s expert at making the sight of a sharp knife penetrating a stubbled throat queasily realistic. This is not a film for the faint-hearted; there’s a lot of gore and the killings are brutal. There’s a strange beauty to the violence, it’s shocking but almost operatic in its cold virtuosity.

As well as satisfying horror-fiends, though, this violence embodies what seems to be one of the film’s themes: the elimination of self.

Angla Riseborough as Tasya in Possessor

Tasya seems to be intent on eradicating herself and everything that defines her, although this seems less about nihilism than a desire to become untethered. Tasya estranged herself from her husband Michael and son Ira and it’s implied this is linked to her occupation and the danger she presents to her family. She seems torn between restoring their relationship or eliminating them completely from her life; indeed she gets to commit a displaced act of pseudo-parricide as part of her mission.

She’s similarly torn about her own existence. There’s a repeat image where she (while embodying her ‘host’) inserts a pistol in her mouth, intending to pull the trigger but struggling to commit to the suicidal act. Technically, this is what’s required to jump out of the inhabited mind / body and return back to her own self, but increasingly Tasya seems unable or unwilling.

Riseborough and Abbot are both excellent playing complex roles. They not only portray their own characters, but also as they become merged and it’s never quite certain who is in control. Riseborough plays Tasya as unknowing and mysterious, a blank. Abbot as Colin is more relatable, and switches impressively between playing his character straight and as Tasya’s puppet. In a sense, the idea of inhabiting another person and then having to let go seems like a metaphor for acting itself. The ambiguities of performance is a central theme: Tasya mimics the speech patterns of Colin, her imminent host. But she also needs to rehearse her own voice, as if to re-establish her self, or at least a performative self.

Christopher Abbot is excellent playing both his character Colin as well as the same person under Tasya’s control

As you might expect there’s not a lot of levity in this film. The body-swap scenario is more reminiscent of Invasion of the Body Snatchers than of Tom Hanks in Big. And with female Tasya inhabiting the body of male Colin, this gives Cronenberg an opportunity to present us with a disturbing scene where the two sexes are merged.

There’s a lot of penetration in this film, mirroring Tasya inserting herself into Colin’s psyche. There’s a couple of scenes of explicit sex although Cronenberg doesn’t seem to share his father’s ‘sex as disease’ preoccupation. More significantly, much of the violence involves insertions: pistols inserted in mouths, frenzied manic stabbings into bloodied bodies, and sharp objects piercing neck, throat or eye sockets (destroying the face, self-identity). Importantly, these acts recur; they’re first executed by Tasya while ‘in character’ (so to speak) but later but they’re repeated in her own ‘real’ life.

The more straightforward scenes are interspersed with some impressively disturbing imagery to express the merging the two characters, including Riseborough reverse-melting in a fast-cutting transition sequence and another where she literally hands over her own face. It’s weird and disorienting, and shows some bold directorial flourishes.

The technology of the future seems curiously retro

Jennifer Jason Leigh is satisfyingly cold in her small role as Tasya’s boss, feigning concern but only really caring about her top assassin’s ability to carry out her job. Sean Bean only has a couple of scenes and is clearly enjoying playing the despicable corporate boor (needless to say Bean gets killed gruesomely, as is his trademark!).

The set designs are impeccable: chilly and stylish; a memorable highlight is the assassination agency’s darkened debriefing room with tubular white chairs picked out against an empty black backdrop. The glass-and-steel offices and luxury apartments are cool and remote; like his father, Brandon Cronenberg finds an anodyne aesthetic in the downtown Toronto location. The gallons of red blood contrast nicely with the frosty sets. Karim Hussain’s glossy cinematography is beautifully distanced, and is nicely complemented by the electronic score by Jim Williams (Raw, various Ben Wheatley films).

Brandon Cronenberg has crafted a challenging film, which is as cerebral as it is visceral, but functions equally as a straightforward sci-fi thriller. It doesn’t spell out its concerns or overdevelop its themes, there’s enough left ambiguous and unsettling to linger in the mind as the credits roll. And if you can handle the gore, it’s definitely worth a watch.

Possessor showed at the London Film Festival and will be released in the UK on 27th November 2020.

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