Being a second generation director who dips his toes in the same pond as your father takes balls, great big bulbous ones, but in the case of Brandon Cronenberg, not only has he managed to mine the same brand of weird that made his daddy’s name, he’s also managed to make his career decidedly his own. Debuting with the squirm inducing Antiviral in 2012 – a film where superfans pay to contract the same illness that their idols suffer – Cronenberg has finally returned with the trippy, violent Possessor, a freaky sci-fi thriller that concerns itself with matters such as identity, conscience and what kind of damage can a poker do to a man’s face?
Strap yourself in for an immensely uncomfortable ride into the psyche of an assassin with a terrifyingly literal case of multiple personality…
Tasya Vos is a corporate assassin who is the best at what am she does thanks to the far-out methods used by her employers. Using brain implant technology, she can transfer her consciousness to an unwilling host and once the hit is completed, she compels the subject to commit suicide, ejecting he mind back out into her own body. However, years of doing this have left Vos disassociated with her own life and she struggles to recall memories or emotions that allow her to connect with her son and estranged husband despite her handler, Girder, testing her to make sure she is still stable. Despite her mental fatigue, Vos accepts to take on the assassination of stupidly wealthy CEO John Parse and his daughter by taking over the body of her boyfriend, Colin and after agreeing the best method of approaching the hit, is implanted into the unwilling patsy. However, after performing the hugely violent task, Vos finds that she cannot make Colin kill himself and instead he damages the implant in his skull which leaves her unable to get back to he body and leaves Colin primarily in control with no idea as to what the hell has happened. As the two wrestle for control within his mind, Colin starts to see aspects of Tasya’s life which leads to him finding out about her husband and son which sends him out on a mission of vengeance – but is it going to work; after all, Vos was having trouble recalling her feelings about family BEFORE she got trapped in a hijacked brain, how in earth is she going to react now?
Adroitly tapping into the same uncomfortable, arthouse leanings such as Under The Skin and Only God Forgives, Possessor is a remarkably cold tech thriller that goes all out with large concepts, trippy visuals and some of the most repellant violence you’ll see all year to make an experience that fittingly wraps itself around your subconscious and refuses to leave for days – much like it’s remarkably damaged protagonist.
Vos is yet another transformative role for the chameleon-like Andrea Riseborough, who gains extra points here for inhabiting a character also known for her ability to embody other people. To give the actress her due, this is a woman who I had no clue was the lead in the 2020 Grudge remake until the damn credits rolled, but many of you will be familiar with her work in Birdman or Mandy and here she puts in yet another sterling performance. Vos is a woman so divorced with her own reality, she has to practice her greetings with her own son the way she practices talking like the victims she’s due to inhabit and Riseborough finds layers to a character that’s been hollowed out emotionally like a damn pumpkin.
The rest of the cast are equally as good with Jennifer Jason Leigh acting all sinister as Vos’ handler, Girder, and Sean Bean giving good arsehole vibes as her newest target, but extra points have to go to Christopher Abbott who has the unenviable task of playing Colin, a man literally of two minds who starts fraying at the edges almost immediately.
Cronenberg has a good grasp on creating an environment that’s as unfamiliar and alien to us that saying hello to he son is to Vos and he creates it by setting the film in an alternate 2008 which, at times looks very much like a british council estate. The tech is clunky, unshowy and weirdly feasable, with the rig that ebtombs Vos’ head during her missions looking like the mask of a futuristic plague doctor – but if the film strives to project an atmosphere of unreality, the violence of the film manages to feel very real indeed.
Opening on an astoundingly brutal stabbing (the knife slides in and out of a man’s throat with agonising slowness) and peaking with a jaw-dropping assault with a poker that not only pops a man’s eye out, but scatters his dental work like pins in a bowling alley, Possessor is a remarkably tough watch – but ultimately a rewarding one.
Cronenberg creates some stirring visual imagery too, primarily with the jarring dreams and hallucinations suffered by the leads due to their unique condition. Their personality shift being realised by their visages melting like wax sculptures only to drip off into the ether and their subsequent merge being represented by Colin’s face being replaced by a twisted version of Vos’.
I’ve tried to avoid comparing Brandon too much with his old man because as an artist I’m sure he wants to tread his own path, but there’s no denying that he’s a chip off the old block and his style feels fairly reminiscent of what you’d expect something like Videodrome or Scanners to feel like if his father, David, had directed them with the skills he has today.
Haunting, creepy and just plain fucking weird; Possessor is a movie that fittingly squats in your head like the worst kind of lodger and simple refuses to move.
A literal head fuck.