REVIEW – ‘Possessor’ is one of the year’s most twisted delights

A family legacy is always difficult to live up to. A family legacy in the film industry is practically a curse, especially on a director attempting to follow in the footsteps of an auteur filmmaker like David Cronenberg. That’s the daunting task facing writer/director Brandon Cronenberg, who, with only his second feature film, proves he’s inherited his father’s talent for crafting cinema dripping in bloody gore and loaded with shocking imagery.

Cronenberg deftly delivers one of the year’s most twisted delights with Possessor, a chaotic, surrealist fusion of sci-fi and horror that plays like an unnerving nightmare you almost don’t want to wake up from. A supremely entertaining fantasy that’s equal parts psychological thriller and blood-drenched horror, Possessor is like the demonic spawn of Inception and Assassin’s Creed. With his existential mindfuck that pulls few punches, Cronenberg takes his father’s mantle and blazes his own path to announce the arrival of a potential new visionary of the macabre.

After a violent opening stanza I dare not spoil to avoid damaging its raw, brutal power, Possessor introduces us to Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), a deadly contract killer working for a mysterious corporation who have developed brain technology that allows its agents to remotely inhabit a stranger’s body and commandeer them to commit assassinations. Once the target is eliminated, Vos begins the process of returning to her own body before forcing her host to suicide.

But the exhausting process is taking its toll on Vos. Her devotion to the job is causing Vos to become estranged from her husband, Michael (Rossif Sutherland) and young son, Ira (Gage Graham-Arbuthnot), who both have no idea what she does for a living. As Vos looks to walk away from her role as a deadly assassin, she’s being groomed to inherit the corporation from its founder, Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) after one final assignment.

For her last gig, Vos is tasked with the triple homicide of high-profile businessman John Parse (Sean Bean), his daughter, Ava (Tuppence Middleton), and her boyfriend, Colin (Christopher Abbott), who will provide the body for Ves to inhabit. But when Vos’s weakened mental state meets Colin’s strong will, the two begin a bitter battle for control of Colin’s body that threatens to destroy them both.

Right from the film’s graphic opening moments, Cronenberg boldly sets the tone for Possessor and sends a blaring warning signal to the viewer; if you can’t stomach this style of visceral, uncomfortable horror, you best get the hell out now. Much like his father, Cronenberg has a penchant for debauched violence and unsettling imagery that will both dance in your mind for days to come. The image that’s being heavily (and wisely) utilised for the film’s marketing is hard to shake and might just show up as an unsettling Halloween mask someday.

It’s gloriously gruesome with lashings of bloody practical effects (brilliantly designed by makeup designer Dan Martin) that suggest Cronenberg felt like he was a kid in the most depraved candy store imaginable. He’s clearly having the time of his life crafting this film and that fun is genuinely infectious for the viewer. Every splash of red is evocatively captured by Karim Hussain, whose cinematography injects a beautiful slickness that perfectly complements Rupert Lazarus‘s supreme production design featuring a mix of cold, sterile environments and warm real-world surroundings.

But blood-soaked mayhem is only part of the magic of something like Possessor. Cronenberg’s screenplay offers a wonderfully original take on the well-worn body snatchers conceit by virtue of exploring the fascinating internal battle between Vos and Colin. The bizarre fun of this film really begins when these two truly go to war and the lines begin to blur between just who is in control of Colin and who will ultimately win in the film’s stunning conclusion.

Aided by brilliant editing by Matthew Hannam and a kaleidoscope of coloured lighting, Cronenberg crafts numerous hallucinogenic sequences where the faces of Vos and Colin overlay in a spectacular dance of the bizarre. In other moments, flashes of Vos will appear where Colin should be, particularly during a graphic sex scene that will likely see the film slapped with the harshest classification possible, courtesy of the flash of a certain appendage. Confusion constantly abounds in this disorderly narrative, but Cronenberg consistently remains completely in control of everything he’s serving up.

The ever-reliable Riseborough is typically wonderful as a woman in a turbulent struggle to remain in control of a situation that’s quickly slipping through her fingers. But this is inherently Abbott’s film, with the young actor yet again proving why he’s one to watch. He’s tasked with playing a character controlled by two wildly different identities, which he handles effortlessly. At first, Abbott plays Colin with the calm assurance of Vos pulling the strings. However, as Colin begins to seize back the power over his own body, Abbott’s performance becomes something else entirely, full of wild rage and menace that’s genuinely terrifying.

While Possessor lightly touches on themes of class warfare, race, and family, Cronenberg doesn’t quite take the time to explore any of these issues too deeply. And there are numerous plot holes regarding the technical aspects of Girder’s technology that mostly go unanswered. These are hardly fatal flaws in a film so supremely enjoyable, but the chance to say something more with this narrative mostly goes begging. Where Cronenberg succeeds is his biting introspection of capitalism and the suggestion Vos is equally as controlled and manipulated as the puppets she’s tasked with inhabiting.

The confidence of Cronenberg to tackle something so incredibly ambitious in only his second feature film is hugely impressive. After undoubtedly worshipping at the altar of his father’s wild career, he’s clearly determined to carve out his own niche, while still paying homage to the teachings of a master of wicked and horrific pleasures. With striking imagery you’d expect from a terrifying fever dream and a twist-filled narrative that will keep you on your toes, Possessor is an absolute blast.

Distributor: NEON
Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Rossif Sutherland, Tuppence Middleton, Sean Bean, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Director: Brandon Cronenberg
Producers: Niv Fichman, Fraser Ash, Kevin Krikst, Andy Starke
Screenplay: Brandon Cronenberg
Cinematography: Karim Hussain
Production Design: Rupert Lazarus
Costume Design: Aline Gilmore
Music: Jim Williams

Editing: Matthew Hannam
Running Time: 103 minutes
Release Date: 2nd October 2020 (U.S)