Film Review – Possessor
Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor (2020) plays like a nightmare. There is a story here, and from a distance it contains elements that look familiar. But with Cronenberg’s writing and direction, it’s constructed with a dark and twisted vision. It’s a sci-fi/horror film that aims not to make you jump with fright but to crawl underneath your skin and creep you out. I came away from it like waking up from a very intense dream – I didn’t care much for the details, but the imagery and feelings remain. It dives into impending doom and doesn’t ever let up. Don’t go into this hoping for a feel-good story.
But that’s not necessarily a criticism. Movies don’t always have to leave us overjoyed, as long as it accomplishes its goals effectively. I believe Cronenberg does that here. He examines themes such as identity, control, loyalty, obedience, etc. – wrapped up in a plot that calls to mind The Matrix (1999) or Inception (2010). And just like his famous father (David), Cronenberg utilizes extreme body horror to get his points across. There is a lot of bloodshed all throughout the narrative. Whether this approach is successful will partially depend on a viewer’s tolerance for violence.
In lesser hands, the mayhem would be treated as the featured attraction. Cronenberg uses it as a means to develop his characters. We follow Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) who works for an unnamed secret organization. Her boss, Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) sends her on specific missions, mostly involving assassinations of large corporate figureheads for high paying rivals. The catch is that Vos does this by going undercover – implanting her consciousness into the head of someone close to her target. She uses the “host” to penetrate a mark’s inner circle, and when she does commit the kill, she can’t be traced as a suspect. As Possessor opens, we watch her complete one of her missions by forcing a host into a brutal stabbing.
The fact that Vos can’t be revealed as the culprit doesn’t mean that her work doesn’t have an effect on her. Her major arc involves her fragile mental state, and how she suffers from the building stress of every kill. Because of the secrecy of her job, she cannot talk about it with her estranged lover (Rossif Sutherland) and especially not with her young son (Gage Graham-Arbuthnot). She doesn’t have an outlet to release her tension – she keeps everything bottled inside and thus her everyday habits are affected. In an early scene, Vos practices a normal conversation over and over to herself, as though speaking to her own family requires massive effort. She becomes more obsessed with violent acts, which puts her in a difficult situation when – during her latest mission – her host Colin (Christopher Abbott) discovers her inside his own head and tries to fight back.
The plot itself doesn’t play as much of a factor as does Cronenberg’s ability to express it. The visual aspects incorporate a hard edge, rapid fire technique. The sequence where Vos implants herself inside of Colin is a piece of bravura filmmaking. She appears to melt away like a wax figure, and then is reconstructed into his physical shape. This process does not seem pleasant at all. Karim Hussain’s cinematography makes sure to zoom in nice and close to examine the needles and prods getting punctured into the character’s skulls. Grider explains that Vos needs to “recalibrate” every so often to maintain her control of Colin. It’s this piece of information that functions as the main point of tension. As Vos starts to lose control of Colin’s body, their inner visions start to morph, collide, and fuse together. At a certain point, we wonder if what we’re seeing is from her perspective or his.
Both Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbott give tremendous performances. Riseborough shows how Vos has been burnt out by the job but can’t escape it. Anyone can see that she wasn’t ready to take on another mission so quickly, and Riseborough exudes that exhaustion along with her willingness to participate. She plays the character almost like an addict – she knows what she’s doing isn’t good for her, but she can’t help herself. Abbott has the tricky role of playing two people in the same body. Not only does he have to translate Vos’ weariness when she is inside of him, he also has to portray Tate’s growing fear and frustration that his body is acting separate from his control. He has to be man and woman at the same time, and he plays both sides equally well.
If only the story were as engaging as everything else. For as strong as the performances are and for how well Cronenberg manages his tone and visual expression, the narrative of Possessor left a lot to be desired. It trudges along without any sense of pace or urgency, and the final resolution was almost too bleak – a punctuation mark bathed in blood and tragedy. For as much as I remember specific images, there is no one scene that left a lasting impression. This is one of those times where I can tell you a movie is good, but I’m not so sure I’d ever want to watch it again.