Movies · Reviews

Holy Hell, ‘Possessor’

Brandon Cronenberg is a bloodied and bruised chip of flesh off the ol’ body horror block.
By  · Published on January 31st, 2020

They say apples don’t fall far from the tree, and it turns out that’s doubly true for apples that taste like perverted technology and disrupted human flesh. Brandon Cronenberg‘s latest arrives seven years after his feature debut (Antiviral, 2012), but while Possessor retains his family’s love of body horror and morally misused electronics it also manages an engrossing pace, engaging characters, unrelentingly brutal violence, erect penises, a must-own Halloween mask, a mean-spirited Sean Bean, one hell of an ending, and more. A lot more because Possessor is… a lot, and most of it is wet, sticky, and dying before our eyes. All of it, though, is fantastically and cruelly unforgettable.

Tasya (Andrea Riseborough) is an assassin. There are no witnesses to her crimes, though, as she commits them from inside other people — she works for a shadowy organization that uses medical technology to give someone control over someone else. They take over their host body, shove that personality to the side, and proceed to mimic their behavior until it’s time to strike. At that point the assassin’s protocol is to kill the host just as they exit the body and return to their own leaving no one the wiser, but things go sideways when Tasya’s possession of a young man named Colin (Christopher Abbott) is hampered by a damaged implant.

That very basic synopsis is all you need because Cronenberg’s application and execution of technology is fascinating to see brought to vividly physical and frequently bloody life. The malfunction leads to an engrossing drama as these two souls compete in a war neither is prepared for — think All of Me (1984) but instead of pratfalls and physical comedy you get splatter and physical violence. It’s a tale about conscience, guilt, and human attachment, and its conclusions threaten to be as terrifically bleak as you probably expect from a Cronenberg film. The sci-fi trappings and gadgetry are lo-fi with stunning effects sequences focused on the transitions between Tasya and Colin. Some elements on that front lean trippy while others lean more physical, and that seems as good a point as any to mention just how physical Possessor gets.

Extremely, graphically, explicitly physical. There… you’re prepared. (I kid, you’re not at all prepared. Good luck.)

The filmmaker crafts a world that could be just a few years away as workers toil in virtual reality seclusion data mining live-streams from cameras belonging to unwary consumer cameras. Corporate espionage is the name of the game, and it’s one played with murder and mayhem courtesy of a woman named Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh). She sells her assassin services to the highest bidders, and Tasya is her star employee having racked up some spectacular kills. What does that do to a person, though? To their empathy and their very humanity?

This setting and narrative is already enough to thrill, but Cronenberg’s script also plays around with the idea of blame as subtle shifts suggest who’s in true control of Colin’s body at a given time. The conflicted character affords Abbott a fantastic role, and he delivers with rage, pathos, and confusion. He’s always been a talented actor, but recent years have shown him equally deserving of bigger showcases on bigger stages. Whether he wants it or not is unclear, but he captures such pain and sorrow here — the norm for most of his characters as his sad brown eyes beg for a hug — that you can’t help but wish someone would offer the poor guy a funny romantic comedy.

Riseborough is equally compelling as a woman torn between the job — and all the violence it requires as evidenced by her inclination for overkill — and the family she loves. Both halves pull at her, but the human body can only take so much tension and pressure before erupting. Leigh, meanwhile, fascinates as the cold but weary company head, and it’s enough to feel like the tease of a shared universe of sorts thanks to her turn in David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999). It’s not one, of course, but crazier things have happened with a Cronenberg at the helm.

There’s commentary here on a desensitized world, but neither Possessor nor Brandon Cronenberg are interested in making this a message film. It’s instead a devious, mean, and darkly thrilling ride into a casually dystopian nightmare. Bold visuals, graphic gore, and a ticking click pull viewers deeper into a world that captivates and repels in almost equal measure. This is horror through a sci-fi lens, a futuristic “what if?” scenario that given the madness on the news every day could already be here. It’s an apple, freshly fallen from the Cronenberg’s family tree, daring you to take a bite… and the temptation is impossible to resist.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.