Possessor, the second feature film from Brandon Cronenberg, joins the ranks of sci-fi films from the last 20 years that provoke an equally cerebral and visceral response from audiences (See also Ex Machina and Upstream Colour). Dealing with sinister implications concerning technology, it leaves you with a disquieting feeling of unease that sticks with you long after it ends. Fittingly enough for a film directed by someone with the surname Cronenberg, Possessor begins with a grisly burst of body horror to establish the premise…
Taysa Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is a professional assassin who is able to possess victims using vague, shady brain-implant technology. She is also trying to reconnect with her estranged family, to the obvious discomfort of her coolly detached handler (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Her latest target is media mogul John Parse (Sean Bean) and she possesses his daughter’s boyfriend Colin (Christopher Abbott), so as to murder Parse without arousing suspicion. However, when Colin’s mind starts fighting back, Vos is unable to free herself, and the two are stuck in a fight for his body and mind.
Riseborough is an inspired casting choice as the assassin trying to find the last vestiges of her humanity in a job that almost demands an absence of empathy. She isn’t physically intimidating, but has an eerie, anaemic appearance that immediately makes her feel somehow alien, an impression compounded by her creepy habit of reciting normal phrases in preparation for seeing her son to seem more human (a habit she also uses when prepping for her assignments). Abbott is also great as Colin, in a particularly thankless role, essentially playing Vos playing him for the lion’s share of the film and having to convey an awful lot with his mournful eyes.
I know it’s not really fair to compare Cronenberg with his father, but if anything Possessor seems to invite comparison, especially Videodrome and Existenz. While the premise and some of the more grisly details are very much familiar territory for fans of David Cronenberg, the execution is more in line with something like Lucio Fulci, where characters notoriously just stood there allowing themselves to be murdered in horrific ways. The violence itself is shocking and coldly dispassionate, all nastily rendered with practical effects and genuinely disturbing. The sequences in the minds of Vos and Colin are also beautifully nightmarish, with a blend of great cinematography, horrific imagery and a constantly pulsing, jarring score all contributing to the disorienting fever dream.
While David Cronenberg‘s best films deal with universal and primal fears, his son is more focused on the modern world. Both Antiviral and Possessor deal with science fiction that is futuristic, but also not beyond the realms of possibility. Possessor feels like a feature length episode of Black Mirror in its use of technology, and I mean that in the best way possible. The focus is never really on the tech but more the implications and problems that arise, and the impact that it has on the characters. Colin’s demeaning, menial job taps into a modern type of paranoia, the very real fear of being monitored by our own devices, and it makes the world of the film feel grounded and recognisable. The technology on display isn’t made to look all shiny and new either, rather mundane and everyday, and all too plausible.
It’s weirdly appropriate that after the operatic, almost grand guignol violence that comprises the film’s climax, Possessor ends on a quiet note, although it’s no less devastating for that. It’s a nicely judged ending that pulls the rug out from under you in a subtle way and shifts focus back to the characters.
A film that is alternately minimalist and extravagant; beautiful and horrific, Possessor is a breath of fresh air, a vibrant, forward looking film with a refreshing, twisty plot and a career best performance from Andrea Riseborough. One of the most thought-provoking, disturbing and bleak films of the year.