Directed by Brandon Cronenberg.
Starring Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Rossif Sutherland, Tuppence Middleton, Sean Bean and Jennifer Jason Leigh.
An assassin who performs her job by possessing the bodies of others, finds herself struggling for control over the body of her current host.
Identity. We know who we are, how our minds work and that we are in control of our bodies. However, imagine if you spent your days taking over the minds and bodies of others, robbing them of their identity and, quite possibly, destroying your own in the process. This admittedly pretentious opening brings me to today’s entry; Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor, a highly creative sci-fi horror masterpiece that has quickly emerged as one of my favourites out of all the films I’ve watched this month.
While I criticised his debut Antiviral for having a great concept but a weak story, with Possessor Brandon Cronenberg vastly improves upon himself, creating a believable world of sci-fi espionage with a compelling, suspenseful and highly original story. The pacing and execution are carefully managed and tight, with no time wasted in establishing the film’s world, the characters and the rules regarding the body possessing technology and the assassin’s methods for using it. Giving just enough time and information so that the audience knows how everything operates without getting bogged down in overly detailed exposition that often derails the momentum of other sci-fi films.
The visual style is fantastic, filled with smooth tracking shots, creative lighting choices (such as a blue-tinted sex scene and a hellish red-tinged nightmare) and an inventive, deliberately disorientating editing style that will screw with your perception of who is in control of events. Although, for reasons I can’t quite explain, I really liked the slow-rotating establishing shots of the city, these simple shots possessing (pun intended) a strangely hypnotic quality that I can’t put my finger on.
The imagery depicting Vos’ (Andrea Riseborough) mind entering the body of Tate (Christopher Abbott) is perhaps the most stylish and creative of the film. With her body liquefying and melting away before reforming into him, the sequence intercut with flashing images of the pair silently screaming, emphasising the pain of the process as their minds are ripped apart and reformed in new bodies. Photo-sensitive viewers should be advised that this sequence features heavy use of strobe effects that could cause problems for some.
The nightmare sequences (if you can call them that) in which the pair attempt to separate themselves from each other are where the horror elements come to the forefront. Showing the two tearing each other apart from within one body in an almost literal fashion, their faces ripping away from each other in a gruesome display of surreal body horror. The highlight of the film’s increasingly nightmarish plot (I’m fighting hard to avoid spoilers) comes when we see Tate “wearing” Vos’ face. A ghoulish eyeless mask frozen in a silent howl of pain. It’s a terrifying image, made all the more so by a sequence in which the Tate/Vos creature re-visits of scenes from earlier in the film. Rendering once quiet and even tender moments, quietly horrifying with the presence of this distorted physical melding of two minds fighting for control.
Before the opening credits have even rolled, Possessor (at least, in the version I watched) begins with a title card informing us that it is uncut. Although, I think this is less of a trigger warning for squeamish viewers and more of a boast that tells us to buckle up for an intense and gruesome ride. With scenes of explosive gunshot wounds, necks being slashed, heads being bashed in, teeth being splintered by pokers and eyes being gouged out, Possessor is a graphically violent film soaked in blood, and it is not for the faint-hearted. I have to give extra credit to Cronenberg and his crew for the small fact that all the gore effects and the face-melding nightmare scenes are all done using old-school practical means. It’s a refreshing sight to see real fake blood in a film, and this one has buckets full of it.
The performances from the cast are superb, particularly our two leads, Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbott. Riseborough (easily one of the finest and most underrated actors working today) is brilliant as Vos, the body-hopping assassin who seems to be suffering an identity crisis. Possessing an understated quality that subtly depicts her attempts to regain and maintain control of her sense of self and of her emotions. This leads to a tragic scene in which Vos returns home after a mission, with the toll of regular body possessing forcing her to practice her emotional responses to seeing her family again. It’s a sad sight to see her have to rehearse her seemingly happy greeting to her son, with Riseborough movingly capturing the emotional emptiness of such a mentally destroyed person. It’s an intriguing performance of many sides and a growing element of unsettling emotional ambiguity that becomes increasingly prevalent as the film reaches its shocking and violent climax.
Matching the brilliance of Riseborough is Christopher Abbott as Tate, the host for Vos’ latest mission. Abbott’s performance is unusual in that, for the most part, he isn’t actually Tate, but Vos playing Tate. So what we have is someone who is constantly pretending, yet, despite their best efforts, everyone seems to notice that he isn’t quite himself, with Abbott brilliantly playing this unique and strange dual role of two people in one body. Then there is the mid-point of the film in which Tate attempts to regain control, forcing Abbott to portray a man in a violent mental battle with an intruder in his mind. The moments in which he seems to lapse into his co-star’s voice and mannerisms are surreal, to say the least, and often leave us in doubt at times as to who is really in control.
With stunning visuals, a highly original story laced with themes about identity and masterly performances from our two leads, Possessor is a gore-soaked sci-fi horror masterpiece that cements Brandon Cronenberg as a genre filmmaker to watch and one who has grown into more than a match for his famous father. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★/ Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★