Written & Directed by Brandon Cronenberg
Possessor is the film Christopher Nolan wishes he could make. It’s a cooly stoic film centered around an incredibly creative concept that delivers on real human emotion. But Possessor goes places Nolan just creatively cannot; he is too conservative in his ideology, a constant desire to frame things in stark objectivist Black & White. Writer-director Brandon Cronenberg knows it is more complicated than that, and, especially when dealing with monolithic tech corporations, you are entering a transcendental world where morality has been so blurred it’s not even recognizable any longer.
Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is a contract killer operating as a “possessor,” having her consciousness implanted into a host she uses to carry out her murders. We meet her at the close of her latest hit, where she failed to commit suicide on her host as she disconnected. Vos’s supervisor, Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), goes through a debriefing process to make sure Vos’s memories and consciousness are undamaged. During this, Girder mentions how Vos is being held back by her husband and son, which creates emotional connections that create a compromising risk. Vos shrugs these off and returns home to her family, practicing how to speak to them and feeling a growing sense of malaise as time drips by. Eventually, she contacts Girder and says she is ready for another job.
This time, Vos will be implanted in Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), the boyfriend of a wealthy socialite whose father owns a massive data mining corporation. The son in the family wants to control the entire enterprise, and Vos will use Tate to kill the father and daughter. Girder hints that the dirt they will have on the son will allow their corporation unfettered access to the marketing data, which is the real angle. The procedures occur, and Vos is dropped into Tate, but things go wrong almost immediately. Their consciousnesses are not lined up correctly, and it becomes clear that this job will end very badly.
Cronenberg delivers what would be one of the best films of the year, even if the slate for 2020 wasn’t so sparse. It is so good to see a movie with such intelligence and quality put into a year that feels bereft of good new cinema. I think my favorite creative decision Cronenberg made was to never deliver scenes of exposition where characters explain how possession works. Instead, he shows us rather than tell us. We see the surgeries and the procedure of setting things up. When the actual possession happens, it is beyond what we can understand in the physical world, so the visuals are incredibly trippy and mind-bending. We see into one consciousness as it takes over another; there really isn’t a visual foundation to build off, so we feel understandably disoriented.
Possessor is most certainly not for squeamish viewers. As intense as the body horror and violence get in his father’s films, Brandon Cronenberg goes even further. The film is being released with the subtitle uncut, and it truly is something that would not fly in most theaters. Simulated sex looks very real, with multiple erections on-screen during the movie, even a mind-twisty moment where Vos sees herself as the one having sex with Tate’s girlfriend. The murders are brutal, with gallons of blood, but still realistic. Part of the story is that Vos is not making quick clean kills; she appears to be taking pleasure in the sensory elements of taking out her targets. She lets her fingers play in the blood of one man’s she’s turned into swiss cheese with a knife. This is not gratuitous, though, and it actually is a crucial element to her character’s arc as it becomes clear that Vos either was a sociopath before taking this job or because it disassociates her from herself, she has become one.
This is a humorless movie, which is one of the weak points. I do think there is something to be said for grim, science fiction horror, but there are moments where some breaking of the tension could help with moments that feel ponderous. It’s clear Cronenberg has put a lot of thought into the world-building and the mood he wants to create. That’s why I compared it to Nolan’s work because the two are playing in the same primary space. This is a cold, modern, angular world where emotion is rare, and relationships are often centered around what each party can gain. Because of its extreme subject matter, Possessor is not a movie for everyone. People who dislike this movie are going to really hate it a lot. The picture challenges the viewer at almost every turn.
That said, it’s the performances that made the movie for me. Riseborough and Abbott have to walk a fragile line, playing characters trying to contain their emotions because their lives depend on it. Additionally, they get opportunities where they play each other, inhabiting the other’s body. If you do that too big, it comes off as comical, and so subtlety and nuance have such an important role. In particular, Abbott finds ways to be so uncomfortable in his own skin, playing Vos taking over his body. The disconnected look he can achieve and then pivot back to himself on a dime is remarkable.
Possessor posits a world not too different from our own that is grim. Corporations are the only significant players, and everyone is a piece in these massive machines. The disassociation caused by that is reflected in Vos’s conditioning to only find fulfillment in her job. Vos’s family are a distraction to her work, and try as she might, she simply cannot laugh over wine with friends over for dinner. This is paralleled in a late-night get-together between Tate’s wife and her friends, where he (Vos in control) doesn’t understand the relationships between these people and so drifts away, preoccupied with a cocaine-covered mirror. This is a future frighteningly close to the world we live in right now.