Writer-director Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor is a mindf*ck in every sense: it employs a discombobulating cerebral sci-fi aesthetic to depict its gruesome tale of a brain-infiltrating assassin who then uses people’s bodies to kill others. “Mind-bending” takes on multiple meanings when the human psyche is depicted as neon-lit melting faces and other visceral body-dissolving abominations seen under strobe-effect. What the film depicts—its narrative machinations—are not all that difficult to grasp; how the film depicts its story is decidedly bracing and brutal. Cronenberg follows in his father David Cronenberg’s technologically-laden body horror footsteps. But this is where the paternal comparisons end; the younger Cronenberg has crafted a decidedly singular and unnerving cinematic work of his own.
The eponymous possessor apparently refers to corporate assassin Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), a pale and sinewy figure who utilizes mind-invading brain implant technology to take over others’ bodies and use them to commit assassinations which don’t look like assassinations as much as random murders. The opening sequence features a “possessed” young woman (Gabrielle Graham) suddenly stab a man to death in a crowded party apparently without reason before allowing herself to be killed. Her body’s death allows Vos to escape back to the chamber where her own body lies plugged into sophisticated machinery. When she is assigned by her handler, Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to murder a tech CEO (Sean Bean) by means of his daughter’s boyfriend, Colin (Christopher Abbott), it appears to be the kind of “one last big job” which will allow her to get out of the brain-invading business and back to her semi-normal life with her husband and son (Rossif Sutherland and Gage Graham-Arbuthnot, respectively). But possessing Colin doesn’t appear to go as planned, with their two psyches violently vying for control of Colin’s body and identity.
Cronenberg creates a futuristic-yet-vintage world of corporate Toronto in Possessor; it is an amalgamation of digital and analog technologies in both the diegetic world and the formal aesthetic compositions. Regarding the former, the brain-invading tech used by Girder and Vos feels strikingly antiquated, made up of wires and buttons tuned to invisible radio frequencies, with actual plugs being pushed into the human skull. For the latter, the distinct lack of noticeable CGI in the body horror moments adds to the grotesquery—this is a messy and menacing film that uses a lot of red-dyed liquid and various sharp or blunt objects to penetrate what appears to be real human bodies. Watching Possessor is not a pleasant experience, albeit I doubt that was Cronenberg’s intent.
Possessor contains numerous themes and subtexts about gender fluidity, sexual violence, and the philosophical mind-body problem. But the most interesting metaphor is that of cinema itself, how a human-made technological device allows others to infiltrate our imaginations through the portrayal of fictional characters and stories. Vos is an actor, practicing her lines before entering into situations in order to generate the most authentic and affecting tone. She is playing the role of Colin in a very extreme version of method acting, literally “becoming” Colin by taking over his body. Leigh’s Girder serves as the role of producer/director, giving Vos the script and guiding her through the performance. In this way, Possessor raises intriguing questions about the cinematic medium itself, particularly the ethics of the gaze and what should/shouldn’t appear on-screen—the film pushes at the boundaries of what is acceptable, especially as both Vos and Colin are not entirely sympathetic protagonists. As the violence escalates, we are helplessly drawn into the existential struggles of Vos and Colin, perhaps wanting to turn away or turn the film off, yet compelled by the narrative to reach its conclusion. We are like Vos-via-Colin, who at various moments looks at him/herself in the mirror and smiles while crying—Possessor forces us to look at the worst horrors of human depravity and asks us whether or not we see ourselves.
Caveat spectator: Possessor features multiple scenes of explicit sex and graphic gory violence. Proceed with caution.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5918982/