Brandon Cronenberg‘s Possessor shares much in common with the horror films of his father, iconic body horror legend David Cronenberg, fusing a critique of technology and corporate villainy with a high concept sci-fi plot and tight bursts of graphic, nightmarish violence. It’s impossible to miss the influence of his father in the film, yet it is also quite easy to recognize that this Cronenberg is his own filmmaker with his own distinct voice. Rather than feeling like a David Cronenberg movie made by someone else, Possessor feels like a continuation of that legendary artist’s ideas, a fresh interpretation of the same anxieties and frustrations fueled and ready for the modern era. Like his prior film before it – the uncannily resonant Antiviral – Possessor ultimately doesn’t fully achieve the potential of its intriguing premise and deft technical skill. Nevertheless, the film is boldly original and terrific fun – a startling jolt of gnarly body horror and menacing science fiction that’s likely to surprise even fans of the director’s father.
Like Antiviral, in which viruses that have infected celebrity figures are extracted, cloned, and sold to hungry fans to experience a deeper “connection” to their idol, Possessor takes place in a distant future, in a world that feels just close enough to our own to register as uncanny. Much like a good Black Mirror episode, the film swiftly sets up the loose mood and iconography of its science fiction. From what can be vaguely gathered, a new kind sector of the labor marker has formed – data miners. Clad in depressingly uniform polo shirts and lanyard IDs, this lower class of workers descend every day into literal “data mines”, in which they don a pair of VR goggles (that imagine them in a much larger office than their employer would ever be gracious enough to provide them), and help train an AI to identify banal household items for hours upon end.
This loose world-building immediately establishes a kind of miserable cyberpunk atmosphere, one that brilliantly imagines the proletariat as financially-dependent accomplices to the frightening systems of data collection that corporations like Google, Amazon, and Facebook have been developing to better track and analyze our every movement. Yet this is only the backdrop to our story, which is much more violent and exciting. Possessor concerns corporate agent Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), who works for a company that provides assassinations to various affluent interests. The twist: these assassins never commit the actual crimes, at least not in their bodies. Individuals close to the intended target are abducted and fitted with a special brain implant, allowing their bodies to be “hacked” and controlled by trained agents to perform their hits incognito.
Tasya is one such assassin, and a terrifyingly good one. We open the film watching her execute her latest hit – a particularly grisly scene, where instead of using her company-provided pistol she stabs her target to death with a blunt butter knife. The process of leaving the host is always the hardest, however, and Tasya is forced to bait the police into killing her, unable to pull the trigger on herself. It’s clear from the outset that this is a character that is obviously disturbed by what she does, detached and uncertain in her day-to-day moments yet viciously alive in the middle of a kill. Nevertheless, she feels drawn to keep working. She almost immediately takes her next job: taking out wealthy tech entrepreneur John Parse (Sean Bean), who owns many of these aforementioned data mines among other assets.
Possessor is at its best when it leans into its disorienting arthouse style, somewhere between the hypnotic, cosmic strangeness of Panos Cosmatos and the sadistic grossness of modern extremity horror. And Cronenberg melds these two sensibilities effortlessly, oscillating between slow, droning dread and abrupt barrages of bloody cruelty in such a way that always keeps the audience queasy and firmly off-balance. This is most definitely a body horror fan’s film – full of both fantastically abstract bodily distortions (often what his father specialized in) and uncomfortably graphic corporal destruction alike.
It’s worth mentioning how perfect of a casting Andrea Riseborough is in her role as the film’s central body-stealing assassin. One of the most inconspicuously versatile performers working today, Riseborough has dealt in humor and horror alike, from the bumbling political comedy The Death of Stalin to the psychedelic mood piece Mandy. The chameleonic actress has a distinct set of eyes but a face that seems to adapt to her role like a mask – much like her character’s ability to slip into another person’s mind and body, not to mention the imagery within the film that visualizes her face literally melting away and becoming a mask. Both Cronenberg and Riseborough seem aware of this underlying narrative, mentioning in interviews that her character of Tasya approaches something of a meta-commentary on her growing filmography and job as an actress in general.
There is certainly much to love about Possessor, from its other cast members (Christopher Abbott, who I have thus far completely failed to mention, is terrific, as is Sean Bean as a loathsomely cocky billionaire) to its dread-oozing techno score to its subtle spin on not-so-distant technology. Nevertheless, after an adrenaline-packed, delightfully gross two acts, the film noticeably stumbles into its ending. Much like Antiviral, Possessor feels as if it’s reached its climax too soon, leaving its audience with a jagged final act that detaches more than it wraps up. It’s a notably cleaner conclusion than Antiviral (which took some bizarre turns to say the least), and it admirably aims to unite its characters’ story arcs in a way that’s both nihilistic and poetic. Still, it falls a bit short, feeling as though the film has lost its sense of direction somewhere along the way.
It’s hard to feel too disappointed though, because Cronenberg delivers so much over the course of the film’s runtime that’s genuinely great. It’s unfortunately rather rare nowadays to get an authentic, original body horror film that doesn’t feel like a soulless retread of days past, one that has both the brains and guts of a future classic. I would have very much enjoyed seeing the glorious, disgusting spectacle of this movie on the big screen, but for now I feel confident saying we still have much to see from this new and talented young Cronenberg.