Possessor review – sci-fi horror that takes you over Head trip

October 9, 2020
Alix Turner 0
Film, Film Reviews
4.5

Summary

The second feature from writer/director Brandon Cronenberg looks at identity and purpose with colour, blood, terrific actors and more than enough tension.

4.5

Summary

The second feature from writer/director Brandon Cronenberg looks at identity and purpose with colour, blood, terrific actors and more than enough tension.

Possessor is the shiny new film written and directed by Brandon Cronenberg (Antiviral), and it’s about a professional assassin, hired by a shady organization on behalf of rich corporate clients. Doesn’t sound like a sci-fi horror film? Well if I tell you the assassins step into the mind and body of a person who would be believable as a culprit and carry out the murder without their consent or knowledge, is that more like it?

It doesn’t look like a sci-fi horror for much of the time, to be honest: Possessor looks like a brightly colored and high-class thriller. Think Eyes Wide Shut in neon. The scenes with the brain implant laboratories are few and brief, and there’s little else of a futuristic nature. But horror: oh yes. Not only are the murders vicious and the injuries explicit, but there is a sense that the poor saps being taken over are truly being invaded; perhaps not quite like a rape, but like a mental car-jacking. The central corporate crime within the film reminds me of the one from Inception, but instead of planting a thought, an entire personality is implanted, who then carries out an act which will bring benefit to the company’s client.

The possessing of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott, It Comes at Night, Piercing) by the group’s “best agent” Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough, Mandy, Oblivion) forms the main part of the plot, after a brief scene presenting an earlier contract to show us what’s involved. This earlier contract also shows us that Vos isn’t entirely in control; though whether in control of herself or of her host seems to be unclear at first, and at least fluctuate later. This struggle between the two minds (like the internal struggle in last year’s Daniel Isn’t Real) makes for some superbly abstract psychological horror and dramatic tension.

Cronenberg was involved in special effects for films like his father’s Existenz before making his own, and this experience shines out in the beautiful sequence when the agent enters the host’s mind, showing how that transfer feels; like Vos is being poured into a Tate mold. There is a similar sequence later when Tate realizes there’s something up with his head, but the mood is suitably different, panicky and desperate.

The role of Vos is interesting: more than stepping into Tate, she’s also acting as him, as though stepping into his body is like putting on a costume. She learns how he would react to others before the contract starts, and calls the context of her contract a “narrative”, as though it is indeed a theatrical part she is playing. Doubly interesting is the way she rehearses as much for her real life, practicing phrases like “hi Darling” and “I’m absolutely starving” before visiting her somewhat estranged family. I don’t know if method actors ever find the parts they play as draining as she does in Possessor though. Riseborough is remarkable, her character going through so much, and yet displaying physical feelings more than emotional ones. She brings out the theme of personal identity in the film, as she never seems to know how to be herself, puts the same effort into it as in being someone else. Perhaps it’s because of how many times she has been someone else: struggles to feel at home in her own body, let alone in her home. We go into the story already knowing she needs a break, and when she cuts her break short, there’s no explanation; but we can see there’s no thrill for her in simply being herself.

In my opinion, this is more Christopher Abbot’s film, though. The pain and reserve he showed in The Sinner and Sweet Virginia impressed me, but they were warm-ups compared to Possessor. The Colin Tate he plays works in the company owned by his girlfriend’s rich father (Sean Bean), who puts him down in public and in private so that the resentment required for Vos’s contract is utterly reasonable. Abbot plays Tate, and plays Vos playing Tate (and we can hear in just a few words which one he is playing); struggling within his family, and struggling within his head. As I said, impressive stuff.

I’m pleased to say Possessor does not present any familiar clichés that go with a body swap trope. Vos barely takes a minute to check her/his face following the implant, and there are no gender swap gags about restrooms or genitals. Perhaps it’s simply down to Vos being so used to a wide range of hosts, but it’s satisfying to see that maybe cinema has moved past some of the old seaside humor: we are who we are, regardless of what bodies we inhabit.

Brandon Cronenberg has definitely moved past his father’s shadow here too, to the extent that I’m reluctant to mention Cronenberg Sr’s name. The influence is noticeable, of course, but despite the (occasional) extreme violence in Possessor, this film is more studied, less abrasive than any by his predecessor (and I say that as a Videodrome fan). The film has an unhurried pace, with a plot streamlined to provide plenty of space for characters and their anguish. To be honest, the immense sensory style of the film brings Alex Garland to mind more than any other director, but only just.

Cronenberg has an excellent team around him here, and I have to credit several of them with making the overall feel of Possessor so damned effective. Jim Williams’ soundtrack that stalks the ears, giving you any anxiety that the characters themselves hadn’t achieved; when it’s not wailing it’s humming or screeching. Karim Hussain’s neon blue cinematography with flashes of orange and yellow as the conflict between two personalities is felt. Then Matthew Hannam’s editing between the crime scenes and the headspace, both beautifully realized visually and effective in that you can see what those characters are experiencing.

Possessor is an incredible film, a piece of art about the nature of self and the value of work. The turmoil of the lead characters got to me for all the reasons I’ve mentioned already. So although that shows how effective and indeed memorable the film was (there were a few stills I’d love to have on my wall), the anxiety-inducing nature of it took the slight edge off my enjoyment. That is the only reason I’ve not given Possessor top score.


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