Director: Brandon Cronenberg
Writer: Brandon Cronenberg
Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tuppence Middleton, Sean Bean, Rossif Sutherland, Gage Graham-Arbuthnot
Producers: Fraser Ash, Niv Fichman, Kevin Krikst, Andrew Starke
Music: Jim Williams
Cinematography: Karim Hussain
Editor: Matthew Hannam
Running time: 103mins
What’s the story: Tasya Vos (Riseborough) is an assassin who enters strangers’ bodies via radical VR technology to execute her targets. But, when she is hired to hit a business tycoon (Bean), his future son-in-law’s body (Abbott) proves resistant to its new host.
What’s the verdict: One of the cliches of 2020 will be how every movie either seemed to predict or weirdly syncs with the current pandemic. Possessor’s COVID-comparison is in how dangerous it can be coming into contact with other people.
Particularly if one of those strangers is a hitwoman who can infect your psyche Inception-style and use you as a murderous flesh puppet before “suiciding” their way back to their own body.
But, it should be scant surprise that Brandon Cronenberg’s movie vibes with our time of infection and body-paranoia. He is after all son of the grandfather of body-horror, David Cronenberg. In what may seem like a back-handed compliment, Possessor pulsates like vintage 1970s Cronenberg, from its unnerving polymorphous sexuality and eruptions of chaotic violence, all within stark, geometrically ordered architecture.
Not that Cronenberg Jr. is merely trading on dad’s trademark riffs. His new movie (a belated second feature following 2012’s Antiviral) has recognisably modern concerns. Literally cut-throat business practices, privacy breaches and data harvesting are all woven into the film’s deceptively expansive story. Alongside dark comic commentary on the toll rapacious corporations can have on employees and their families (Rossif Sutherland and Gage Graham-Arbuthnot as Vos’ estranged husband and son).
The way Possessor dramatises this will not suit all tastes. Andrea Riseborough’s assassin Tasya Vos (a typically Cronenbergian name that is also an appropriate real world acronym – Virtual Operating System) more and more ditches the gun in favour of brutally phallic weapons to neutralise her “marks”, suggesting she risks becoming lost in her hosts.
There is no Jumanji-style “avatar” gender swapping humour: Vos inhabiting the body of Christopher Abbott’s Colin to reach data tycoon John Parse (Bean) is a bizarre, fleshy journey. Psyches wrestle one another (allowing for a memorably unsettling sex scene) and “neural glitching” sows seeds of doubt in both character and audience as to exactly who is at the wheel…
Plus, Cronenberg leans into what Nolan quietly sidestepped: Tasya Vos is a mind-raping monster, twisting people’s psyches so they act against their will. Inception by way of Under the Skin is a fitting descriptor for this movie.
Riseborough and Abbott’s understated performances are tone perfect, with solid support courtesy of Sean Bean (who you wish would play nasty in more films of this calibre) and Tuppence Middleton (star of the similarly gender-amorphous Sense8) as his daughter, the neo-noir monikered Ava Parse.
Also great to see Jennifer Jason Leigh back in the Cronenberg realm as the aptly named Girder, Tasya’s boss and neuro-support. In the impossibly distant past of 1999, Leigh dove deep into the proto-VR waters of David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, a movie that would sit well in a double-bill here. Not least because the bug-like VR helmet in Possessor seems a descendant of the gelatinous invertebrate game console of that late-20th century mind-melter.
Dan Martin’s 13 Fingers FX outfit provides the type of prosthetic excellence that has made Martin an heir to splatter maestros Rob Bottin and Dick Smith. The special effects here may not always be pretty (and some you’ll flinch from), but they deliver many of 2020’s most startling movie images. Particularly the melting skin plastic reality of the “binding” process as Vos hops into Colin’s mind.
Ultimately though, the true star of Possessor is writer/director Cronenberg. Uncompromising and intelligent in his vision, he has delivered a body-horror shocker for our pandemic-ridden, post-truth, post-morality times.
The result is a five-star experience that promises to grow darker and richer with each visit.