You can imagine that if Joe Hill (née King) and Brandon Cronenberg ever met, they would have some real “yeah same” moments. They might discuss the constant comparison to their famous father’s work and how it is always part of the conversation surrounding theirs.
One could argue however that if Brandon wanted to stand apart he would avoid films that probe his father’s preoccupations – the fractured psyche, technology and a focus on anatomy that made him the king of “body horror”.
Perhaps one could say Brandon is being his most authentic self by following his own interests? And Possessor confirms Brandon can stand on his own as one of the most interesting filmmakers of the moment.
Possessor follows Tasya Vos played by Andrea Riseborough. She makes a living hacking into the minds of unsuspecting victims via elaborate and nasty technology and remote controlling them to commit assassinations before killing themselves, thus closing the loop and making it look like a murder suicide. It’s the kind of 20 minutes into the future concept that could be a Christopher Nolan film but in this instance becomes a visceral horror thriller.
In assassin movie tradition Vos has a handler in the form of Girder (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, using the same detached tones she used in Annihilation). In the opening of the film Vos is able to kill the intended target but struggles with making the host shoot themselves in the head. She’s also going “off script” and rather than shooting targets indulges more sadistic ways of killing. She is also separated from her husband and son. Constantly embodying others is fracturing her own internal sense of identity and it is suggested she is becoming more detached from herself and those around her.
Her next job is to take over the body of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), who is engaged to Ava (Tuppence Middleton). Ava’s father John Parse (Sean Bean) runs the shady data mining company where Colin works. The job is to kill John and Ava before making Colin kill himself. If they succeed the client, who is John’s stepson, will inherit the company and give Girder’s company shares. To give nothing more away, things do not go according to plan and the film becomes a visceral fight between Colin and Vos for control of his own body.
The film is Brandon’s second. His 2012 debut Antiviral was set in another alternate present/near future dystopia where people pay to be injected with celebrities’ viruses and consume cloned celebrity meat. Whilst this year it was shown to be oddly prescient because it features a virus that originates in Asia, I found Antiviral to be a great example of world building that meandered in search of an actual plot. Possessor however successfully rectifies these flaws.
The filmmaking is truly breathtaking. The cinematography executed by Hobo with a Shotgun DP Karim Hussain is incredible for its relatively meagre budget. Most of the visual effects were done in camera and are stunning, particularly the representations of the mental plane on which Vos and Colin struggle.
The film is brutal in terms of violence. Anyone who witnessed the disturbing killings in Lords of Chaos will have seen the work of FX artist Dan Martin. Here he creates gruesome tableaus of carnage. Cronenberg enhances the viscerality, utilising disturbing subliminal flashes of gore in the edits to show how troubled our characters are.
The performances are all fantastic. Riseborough demonstrated already in Mandy and the TV series National Treasure an ability to brilliantly portray broken characters. It’s here too as Vos is disconnected and violent. Meanwhile, Abbott’s Colin is also a former coke dealer who cheats on his fiancee. It’s refreshing in this age of sanitised blockbusters and an increased focused on being literal to have flawed protagonists in a film that doesn’t tell adults how to think or feel.
Possessor is not for everyone but if you are a horror fan, it’s certainly a trip you have to take and will be one of my favourite films of this bizarre year. It’s available on multiple streaming platforms but I recommend giving Volta or the IFI@Home player your support.