Writer-director Brandon Cronenberg’s latest film can most accurately be described as a visual experience. There is a certain milieu in which Cronenberg’s work takes up residence – somewhere between malaise and dread – and in the case of “Possessor,” it’s drenched in hues of red and blue.
The story follows an elite corporate assassin, Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), through two of her most recent attempts. The film starts with a litmus test, providing viewers with one scene to determine everything they’ll need to know about whether or not they’ll be able to sit through the rest of the film.
The squeamish will likely bow out after watching a woman stick a needle through the top of her head as a means of “calibration,” but if that’s not enough, she then walks up to a man at a party, slits his throat, jumps on top of him and stabs him a few dozen times. It is primordial, gruesome and very, very bloody. In case you were wondering, yes, this was an assassination. The company Tasya works for uses brain implant technology that allows the user to enter a person’s consciousness, possessing their body and using it to carry out their sinister plans.
When Tasya is tasked with killing tech billionaire John Parse (Sean Bean), she possesses the body of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), the man currently dating Parse’s daughter, Ava (Tuppence Middleton). The story is much more than killing and gore, though. Beneath the blood-soaked surface there are such nuanced details about the human psyche and sense of identity that may be even more unnerving than the body trauma on display. The uneasiness is only heightened by its aesthetics, both visually and audibly. Director of photography Karim Hussain, Cronenberg and production designer Rupert Lazarus have created an alternate reality here that feels entirely plausible and absolutely stunning.
One of the most impressive aspects of “Possessor” is the relatively simple premise that Cronenberg uses as a launching pad in order to explore existentialism and take a stab at human consciousness. What happens when you invade another person’s mind? How much of you is present? How much of them is fighting back? When you spend your life inhabiting other people, assuming different identities and waking up next to others’ loved ones, how much of you is being stripped away?
The things that make us human and ground us – family, love, individuality – get pushed away, and when that happens, the only thing that’s left is anger and a nihilistic world view.
Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbott are standouts. Riseborough is beginning to prove herself a staple in all things terrifying. After roles in “Mandy,” “The Grudge” and now “Possessor,” it’s safe to assume we have another reliable “scream queen” on the come up. Being able to convey deep emotions and still stay grounded when the blood hits the fan is a challenge, and Riseborough rises to the occasion.
Abbott is a nice compliment to Riseborough’s character. While Tasya is a calculating and ruthless killer, Colin is more aimless in his ventures. Once possessed, there is a thoroughly captivating game of cat-and-mouse happening inside Colin’s head, and Abbott has a lot of emotions and a certain level of vulnerability to display. The internal fight for his identity is shown on both his face and in his body language. The supporting cast of Sean Bean, Tuppence Middleton and Jennifer Jason Leigh also help elevate the material.
While this film will certainly not appeal to the masses, the individuals who do seek “Possessor” out will not be disappointed. Rife with head trauma – both mentally and physically – it stays true to Cronenberg’s sensibilities as a director and his signature Cronenberg DNA unquestionably shines through.
Film critic and member of the North Carolina Film Critic Association.