Watching a film by writer and director Brandon Cronenberg, son of legendary horror icon David Cronenberg, is much the same as reading Joe Hill and finding that it's a lot like reading Stephen King. Imagine making a phone call to talk to your brother, and his mostly-grown son answers. For a little while, you mistake one voice for the other. It's not so much story content - just the way they both "talk."
The younger Cronenberg's first film, 'Antiviral', had a few interesting ideas about celebrity culture, human bodies as mechanisms and businessmen as amoral ravagers, but it was hamstrung by a sparse visual style and dry narrative. It was gross yet boring. His sophomore feature, 'Possessor', is a large stride forward.
'Possessor' follows Tasya Vos (a ghostly Andrea Riseborough, 'Mandy', 'The Grudge'), a corporate agent who uses brain-implant technologies to inhabit other people's bodies. Her handler, Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh, 'Morgan', 'Annihilation', who specialises in mad scientist roles) sends her on specific missions, mostly involving assassinations of high-level corporate figureheads for wealthy rivals. Once she plonks her consciousness into the head of someone close to her target, Vos uses the "host" to penetrate a mark's inner circle, creates some evidence of motivation, completes her kill, gives the order - "Pull me out" - and then forces the avatar to commit suicide, thereby severing the psychic connection. As 'Possessor' opens, we watch her complete one of her missions by forcing a host (Gabrielle Graham) into a stabbing which quickly degenerates into gory overkill.
Vos has a fragile mental state, and suffers from the building stress of every kill. Because of the secrecy of her job, she cannot talk about it with her estranged lover (Rossif Sutherland) and especially not with her young son (Gage Graham-Arbuthnot). She doesn't have an outlet to release her tension - she keeps everything bottled inside, and thus her everyday habits are affected. Post-mission, she goes through a list of cherished items to reaffirm their personal significance to her. She practices normal conversations over and over to herself, as though speaking to her own family requires massive effort. It seems like her delicate family unit is all that is keeping Vos tethered to the real world.
Her latest lucrative assignment is to invade the body of Colin Tate, played by Christopher Abbott ('Piercing', 'Vox Lux'), the future son-in-law of a wealthy corporate raider (Sean Bean, 'Dark River', 'The Martian'). Vos' mission is to get close enough to Tate's future wife (Tuppence Middleton, 'Fisherman's Friends') and her family to assassinate them and take over her family company. She ends up in a difficult situation when Colin discovers her hiding inside his own head and tries to fight back.
Visually, 'Possessor' is a blast, with frantically strobing montages and colour-coded lighting schemes. Karim Hussain's cinematography zooms in to examine the needles and drills getting punctured into the character's skulls. Editor Matthew Hannam whips deft, eyeblink-quick images of Vos' memories across the screen. Arguably the most beautiful scene in the film is the sequence where Vos implants herself inside of Colin. She melts away like a candle, in stop-motion animation, before resolidifying into his physical shape.
'Possessor' takes its sex and violence seriously, emphasising that the human body is just as fragile and easily manipulated as the human mind.
The hallucinatory visuals aren't merely style for style's sake. Grider explains that Vos needs to "recalibrate" every so often to maintain her control of Colin. It's this piece of information that functions as the main point of tension. As Vos starts to lose control of Colin's body, their inner visions start to morph, collide, and fuse together. At a certain point, we wonder if what we're seeing is from her perspective or his. The film examines themes such as identity, control, loyalty, and obedience, all wrapped up in a plot that calls to mind 'The Matrix', 'Inception' or the underrated 'Gamer'.
Just like his famous father (David), Cronenberg utilises psychosexual deviations and extreme body horror to get his points across. Whether this approach to narrative is successful will partially depend on a viewer's tolerance for unpleasantness. 'Possessor' takes its sex and violence seriously, emphasising that the human body is just as fragile and easily manipulated as the human mind. And by "seriously", I mean there are several stabbings that go on forever and an eye-wateringly graphic instance of a fireplace poker being rammed into somebody's mouth and yanked out, bringing a handful of teeth with it. Vos' job is "wet work", and Cronenberg explores what those two words mean in grotesque detail.
He's aided by Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbott, who both give tremendous performances. Riseborough shows how Vos has been burnt out by the job but can't escape it, exuding exhaustion along with her willingness to participate. She's thin, with haunted eyes and a face that is almost translucently pale - her veins visibly bulge against her skull during the transferal of her consciousness. Not only is she gradually losing her humanity, but she looks like she's literally fading from this plane of existence.
Abbott has the tricky role of playing minds sharing a single body. Not only does he have to translate Vos' weariness when she is inside of him, he also has to portray Tate's growing fear and frustration that his body is acting separately from his control. He has to be man and woman at the same time, and he plays both sides equally well. One of the many freaky moments is when Vos has to recalibrate Tate's mind, and we watch Abbott run through all of his emotions. Another is Tate staggering through Vos' life while wearing an ill-fitting Andrea Riseborough mask.
The Cronenberg name is tightly associated with the body horror genre, and rightfully so. 'Possessor' feels like a fever dream, delivering unsettling violence, thought-provoking creativity and remorseless direction. Its revelations about the monsters within, summed up in its shockingly grim climax, have a lasting resonance.