It seems a bit cheap to open a review of Possessor, the second movie to be written and directed by Brandon Cronenberg, by comparing his work to that of his father. David Cronenberg’s legacy is unassailable — a genre-hopping madman who can weave all manner of perversities and grotesque body horror into films that have grander thematic ambitions than your average Oscar nominee. But even the most cursory glance at Possessor feels like everyone involved in its creation is daring you to make the comparison.
Daddy David as we all know had very … specific kinks, so much so that he incidentally spawned an entire subgenre with body horror. As it happens, Brandon has inherited many of the same turn-ons: fictional (and completely implausible) fields of science, menacing corporations run by aloof bureaucrats, societies desensitized from a constant barrage of sex and violence and — of course — human bodies transformed in unspeakable ways. So while certain people may go into young Cronenberg’s latest with preconceptions about nepotism or it being a rehash of another director’s vision, those reservations should be eased once they experience the film themselves. Possessor might not pay off on all the engrossing concepts and world-building of its first act, but it is nevertheless a thrilling mash-up of cyberpunk nihilism and nauseating ultraviolence.
Tasya (Andrea Riseborough) is an assassin for a shady organization that uses brain-implant technology to let her inhabit someone else’s body and take out high-ranking figures of powerful corporations. (They pretty much stick a needle through the top of your skull to do it, as an initial shot reveals in loving close-up.) This body-swap science allows for the hits to look like bizarre murder-suicides, as if the victims were killed by a spouse or jealous business rival. It’s all arranged by Tasya’s boss, Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) — who also makes sure Tasya’s mental state functions well enough to keep murdering at the organization’s behest after Tasya returns to her own body.
The opening sequence takes us through a single hit, as Tasya (occupying the body of a nameless young woman) enters a lavish ballroom soiree, approaches some fat-cat yuppie and stabs him no fewer than 50 times through the throat and stomach. It’s … an excessive use of force, and when Girder asks Tasya why she couldn’t just shoot the guy, she replies that she wanted to make sure the job was thoroughly finished.
Riseborough is excellent in these early moments, especially when she goes back to her house and we see a husband and young son unaware of her occupation. Tasya’s work — a whiplash routine of murder and literal out-of-body experiences — has eroded anything resembling an actual personality, and mental images of spurting wounds and torn flesh are all that keep tolerable even the basest pleasures like marital sex. The character’s appearance — dyed white hair and pale, haunted face — mirrors her broken existence. Though her body lives on, she navigates through the land of the living like a ghost, barely registering.
Possessor’s first act sets things up in a way that makes one expect the remainder to unfurl as a sort of Inception-like corporate espionage thriller with a welcome side of extreme bloodshed. That isn’t necessarily what Brandon Cronenberg has in mind, however. The majority of the story focuses on one particular job, inhabiting the body of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott) in order to kill his father-in-law, smarmy tech CEO John Parse (Sean Bean). This assignment takes about two weeks, a time which Tasya uses — while possessing Colin’s body — to plant the seeds that Colin is deeply unstable and resentful enough towards Parse that the eventual murder-suicide won’t appear out of character.
What happens from there is best left for the audience to discover on its own, but it’s no spoiler to say Tasya’s plan goes off the rails rather quickly, and Possessor’s second act shifts away from cyberpunk-thriller vibes and turns inward into more psychological horror territory — complete with abstract hallucination sequences and strobe lights. While the emphasis on Tasya’s internal struggle is engaging, you can’t help but wish Cronenberg would take more time to explore the intriguing setting he built so skillfully at the outset.
There are plenty of tiny details that are incredibly amusing, despite not really raising any substantial questions. Colin’s job at his father-in-law’s data-mining company makes for the movie’s funniest sequence, where he spies on an unwitting couple through their webcam as they’re having sex. Colin, unfazed by the intimate scene he’s intruding upon, positions the camera away from the couple to record data on the brand of drapes in their bedroom. It’s another example of how indifferent the monolithic corporations in this world are toward people to whom they claim to cater and how no aspect of a person’s life is too private for them to exploit.
A chilling point, and one also reflected in Tasya’s increasing lack of identity; as long as she can still kill people and make her bosses money, it doesn’t matter how little of her humanity she retains. That’s ultimately where any discussion of Possessor’s ideas will end and promptly move to geeking out over the department in which the film truly soars — the absolutely punishing violence. Neon Studios is marketing this movie as Possessor Uncut, and that promise of boundary-pushing gore isn’t an empty one. This is NC-17-level brutality, the rare kind of violence that will cause plenty of horror geeks’ faces to melt right off their skulls and less-favorable folks to abandon ship.
As shocking as the carnage may be, it’s no doubt essential to the themes at play here. Tasya doesn’t feel ownership over her body like we all instinctively do. Her body is a vessel she frequently leaves and, as a result, she has no sense of a physical identity. That identity is owned by the faceless suits she works for, so when she feels the need to, say, gouge out a target’s eyes instead of a point-blank killshot, it’s from a need to control a body even if it isn’t hers.
Minus the amazing gore in Shivers, David Cronenberg’s first few films weren’t too impressive on a visual level. Their microbudget look still couldn’t overshadow the ambition of those early screenplays. Possessor works on a similarly modest scale, except Brandon Cronenberg manages to pull off some wonderful practical effects and a distinct style using small change. From drab, sterile boardrooms to the golden, chandelier-lit glow of white-collar banquets, the set design is meticulous enough to create a genuine sense of place while also not being too showy about it.
Possessor boasts so many impressive assets that it’s slightly frustrating when once the end credits hit, you come away thinking it’s a very good movie instead of tearing your shirt off and running down the streets while declaring Brandon Cronenberg your new god. On the other hand, considering both the maddening amount of potential and shrewd restraint he displays here, I wouldn’t cancel those plans quite yet.