Possessor is an artfully ultra-violent and surprisingly empathetic mash-up of futuristic and retro genre influences.
In Brandon Cronenberg’s debut film Antiviral, there’s a line of dialogue that sticks out as a kind of poetic koan to his sensibility; a salesman specializing in pushing celebrities’ viral contagions on a worshipful public tells a potential client that being infected with a supermodel’s herpes germ would represent a kind of “biological communion” between the two of them, a direct line from star to adoring fan. Possessor offers an mirrored inverse to this peculiar idea, as it pertains to cramming two distinct consciousnesses into one body and watching them struggle for control of the vessel. The two films form a sort of diptych, a debate between Dualism and Monism. In other words, Antiviral is the body, Possessor is the mind, and that “biological communion” has been rendered frighteningly literal. Possessor is also a disgustingly violent thriller, taking the extremes of Cronenberg’s famous father to delirious new heights (or grimy lows, depending on one’s stomach for this sort of thing).
Andrea Riseborough plays Tasya Vos, a high level assassin who jacks into other people’s minds and uses them like puppets, leaving the host body for dead when the job is done and her consciousness exits. After a brief prologue that shows the process in action, and the toll it takes on Tasya’s already unstable psyche, she gets her biggest assignment yet — taking over a young man named Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), who will then kill his girlfriend Ava Parse (Tuppence Middleton) and her powerful father John Parse (Sean Bean, in a brief but welcome appearance), allowing another family member to seize control of their data-mining company. This is cyberpunk corporate espionage, a la New Rose Hotel, and things go off the rails when Tasya cannot extricate herself from Colin’s body. She’s been warned by her handler, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, that after 72 hours she’ll be subsumed into the host’s consciousness, literally losing her mind. There’s a lot going on here, as Cronenberg freely borrows concepts from a plethora of sources — the elder Cronenberg’s Existenz for starters, but also J.G. Ballard, Baudrillard by way of The Matrix and Assayas’ Demonlover, the late-90s oeuvre of virtual reality schlock master Brett Leonard, and even the (criminally underrated) Gerard Butler vehicle Gamer. If there’s too many ideas floating around to fully engage with any single one in real depth, Cronenberg at least keeps his film fast-paced, with a new scene of grievous bodily harm or a psychedelic freak out that frazzles the nerves every few minutes.
Riseborough is a unique talent, her impossibly big eyes capable of channeling tenderness or opaque madness just by how she furrows her brow or tenses her neck. She’s on edge even before taking on the job, staring off into space during sex with her estranged husband, or practicing in advance what she’s going to say to him and their young son, like she’s reminding herself how to be herself. Abbott is equally good in a difficult role, playing both a hopelessly confused Colin, realizing that he has no control over what Tasya does when she is the dominant consciousness, and Tasya-as-Colin, all steely eyed determination. Cronenberg has designed a strange world full of both retro and imaginary tech, sketching in all kinds of weird details in the margins of the film, which plays like a dystopian future (even though it’s actually set in the past, in 2008). The fluctuating personalities are represented by ominous red lighting, superimposed images, body doubles, and, in one particularly icky scene, a waxy shell of a hollow body that melts and then reforms. The murders here are shockingly violent, as bodies are stabbed, shot, and bludgeoned, and Cronenberg shows in extreme closeup what a fireplace poker does to teeth and eyeballs. He uses blood like Pollock uses paint, a viscous, abstracted thing that becomes startlingly beautiful even as you have to watch the screen through your hands. It’s a tour-de-force of New Weird genre work, a blast of old-school body horror, and a strangely empathetic portrait of slipping sanity.