Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor carries a lot of the hallmarks of the work of his father, but make so mistake, this sci-fi body-swapping assassin horror from this year’s London Film Festival is every bit an example of how he is carving a distinctly original path for himself in the genre as his previous film Anitviral.
Cronenberg’s story is set in a dystopic world that’s actually our past, 2008, where Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is an assassin who is capable of, through an advance technological use of a distinctively retro mind-melding machine, implant people and hijack their bodies, in order to get close to assassination targets and kill them on behalf of the agency that employs her.
This alone would be a fairly terrifying concept to explore, as Vos uses innocent people with access to her actual targets to aid her work, before killing ‘herself’ and thus killing that innocent person in order to return her consciousness into her own body. However, as we discover early on through her ‘debriefs’ with handler Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Vos is disassociating from herself, she is struggling to reconcile who she is and what her own memories are, and she essentially begins to lose her sense of self.
When she’s tasked with killing the data-mining mogul John Parse (played by a delightfully smug and arrogant Sean Bean) she takes over the body of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott) who is dating Parse’s daughter Ava (Tuppence Middleton) and that’s when things really go off the rails for Vos as she completely loses control, with Tate fighting her internally for his own body.
Possessor is at its best when it finds interesting and distinctive ways to portray the abstract struggle of two souls or consciousnesses within one body fighting for control visually on screen. The scene where Vos first transports herself into Tate’s body is drawn out, nightmarish and cool as hell, and when Tate regains control over his own body, visualised by a scene where he strangles Vos, pops her head and then wears it as a mask is effective, albeit slightly heavy handed.
Naturally, the entire film is extremely stylised when it comes to its visuals due to the complicated nature of its plot, sometimes Riseborough and Abbott switch places physically to let us know who is in control. Sometimes shots are lit with neon abstract lighting, sometimes scenes tilt on a disorienting axis. There are many flourishes that really add to the high-concept sci-fi feeling of the film.
Cronenberg also doesn’t shy away from embracing the body horror that made his father so infamous as a filmmaker with plenty of visceral blood splatter and brutal mutilations. The opening scene of events worker Holly (Gabrielle Graham) who is being ‘piloted’ by Vos jams a metal rod through the top of her own skull in a squelching, bloody announcement that the rest of the film is going to be gorey, before heading to a party to stab a man repeatedly with a steak knife creating a shower of blood. Later, Sean Bean’s character finds himself particularly on the wrong end of body horror as his teeth are popped out by a twisting crowbar and his eye is levered out of its socket. Delightfully wince-inducing stuff.
Riseborough is superb as the cold, borderline robotic Vos, nailing the chameleonic feeling that she no longer has an identity of her own, however the star of the film, for me, was Christopher Abbott as Colin Tate. Abbott as a lot to do here, from creating the real Tate who’s a smarmy, down-on-his-luck typical man, to imbuing Tate with a nuanced and delicate femininity when Vos has ‘taken over’ and is trying to convince Ava that it’s still him, to finally portraying the confusion and rage of a stranger within his own body and realising he’s being used as a pawn. Both performances are vital to the film and both help to really elevate it.
The story itself loses its way slightly towards the end, with a predictable and slightly underwhelming ending, albeit one that ultimately drives home some of the points that Cronenberg is making in terms of humanity, the destructive elements of being obsessed with work, the manipulation of corporations and their invasion and control of every aspect of humanity to name just a few that can be interpreted.
These themes, the stylisation and the withdrawn characterisation of both Vos and Tate make Possessor hard to emotionally connect with, but I feel that might be part of the point. In the end what we get is a disconcerting, uncomfortable and trippy body horror science fiction deep dive into what it is that makes us human. It what will certainly divide opinion but there’s no arguing that Cronenberg has a flair for this kind of genre filmmaking which is why I feel this might be one of the best, most striking, sci-fi horrors in years.
Please check out our reviews for the rest of the horror films that screened at London Film Festival this year here