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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Possessor

This nightmarish horror film about corporate-fuelled assassination via literal body snatching is one of 2020's most visceral and memorable movies.
By Sarah Ward
November 26, 2020
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By Sarah Ward
November 26, 2020
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UPDATE, May 22, 2021: Possessor is available to stream via Google Play, YouTube Movies and iTunes.

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From the moment he decided to become a filmmaker, Brandon Cronenberg wasn't likely to direct romantic comedies. He could've, or period dramas, action flicks or anything else that took his fancy. He still can. However, his surname is already synonymous with not only the most unnerving genre there is, but with body horror specifically. For decades, that status was his father's doing. Including Shivers, Scanners, Videodrome and The Fly, David Cronenberg is the field's undisputed cinematic master. Accordingly, Brandon's decision to craft not one but two features in the same mould isn't the least bit surprising — but just how extraordinary 2012's Antiviral and now Possessor are wasn't ever guaranteed. If either Cronenberg wants to make a movie about passing down the penchant for visceral thrills and the ability to smartly serve up savage explorations of corporeal terrors via genes (based on their own experiences, naturally), that's something that plenty of people would watch.

Brandon's current foray into body horror deploys a completely different idea, of course, although someone isn't completely responsible for their own choices here either. In Possessor, technology permits assassins to hijack the bodies of people close to their targets, letting them assume not just their identities but their physical presence to fulfil their murderous missions. Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough, The Grudge) is one such killer, and she is so exacting and accomplished at her job that her no-nonsense boss and handler Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Annihilation) keeps trying to push her further. Such work comes with consequences, though, with Tasya slowly estranging herself from her husband (Rossif Sutherland, Catastrophe) and young son (Gage Graham-Arbuthnot, Becky). During the luridly shot undertaking that opens the movie and the assignment that the often neon-hued flick spends the bulk of its time on, Tasya also begins to realise that separating herself from the folks she's temporarily inhabiting is becoming difficult.

In the first job, Tasya's consciousness takes over a woman called Holly (Gabrielle Graham, On the Basis of Sex) to gun down a high-flying lawyer at a swanky hotel party. Every mission should end with extraction via suicide — the possessed person's, as forced by the possessor, who then returns to their own bag of bones, flesh and blood — but Tasya can't pull the trigger on her host body. When she's later sent into Colin (Christopher Abbott, Vox Lux), the fiancé of the daughter (Tuppence Middleton, Mank) of a ruthless business mogul (Sean Bean, Snowpiercer), she similarly struggles to retain control. As depicted in gory detail, being able to stick a probe into your head and mind-hop into someone else's may be pure science fiction, but the younger Cronenberg intentionally apes The Matrix when he shows how the tech behind his premise operates. Our present analogues to Possessor's body-jumping concept exist in the online world, virtual reality, avatars, catfishing, trolling and even just anonymous commenting while you're tapping at your keyboard or phone, and this film makes it ferociously clear that it all has a significant cost.

Cronenberg isn't just taking cues from his dad — whose 1999 film eXistenZ, also starring Jason Leigh, toyed in somewhat similar territory — or from a beloved sci-fi franchise. As many works that reflect upon humanity's true nature via dystopian futures tend to, the writer/director adds an entry to both the body horror and science fiction canons that seems like it might've appeared in a feverish dream after a life spent consuming those exact types of tales. But Possessor also always feels like a unique creation, and never a film puppeteered by its influences in the same way that Tasya pulls the strings of her marks. Cronenberg's feature boasts far too much of its own chilliness, daring and determination, as well as the filmmaker's fondness for particularly gruesome imagery, to merely be the sum of its various sources of inspiration. Possessor also has its own wellspring of nihilism pumping through its veins, not only tackling big notions in a bold and ultra-violent way, but proving deeply, gut-wrenchingly, existentially dark.

It's a bleak line of thinking, positing that nothing means anything in a world where anyone can be someone else without knowing, corporate interests always take precedence over individual needs, and invading the privacy of people's homes, hardware and heads is a common and lucrative business model. It's also a wave that Possessor rides. But the film needs two people to hang these ponderings from, finding them in the sensational Riseborough and the also exceptional Abbott. With hair almost as pale as her skin, there's a ghostly look to Riseborough and a similar feel to her performance, instantly illustrating how all of Tasya's time spent secreting away in other people's guises is eroding her sense of self. Abbott, playing a man whose body has been snatched but whose mental energy refuses to quietly subside, is a ball of continued conflict and also near the best he's ever been on-screen — on par with 2015's James White and this year's Black Bear, in fact.

In Cronenberg's aforementioned directorial debut Antiviral, he imagined a future where our consumption-driven urges and obsession with celebrity have evolved to a disturbing point. Not only do people willingly get infected by the same viruses that afflict their favourite stars, using the latter's very own cells, but a literal meat market exists that cultivates edible proteins from the same source. That's the kind of mind that would not only conjure up Possessor's equally disturbing world, but also ground it in so many accurate observations about modern life that sometimes it's difficult to know if it's the imagery or the ideas that's causing a deep-seated reaction. The answer is both, but Cronenberg definitely inherited his father's knack for creating a nightmarish, grisly and piercing yet sleek and haunting spectacle — and for making brilliant and brutal movies that cannot be forgotten.

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