Possessor (2020) BFI LFF Review
Director: Brandon Cronenberg
Screenwriter: Brandon Cronenberg
Starring: Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sean Bean, Tuppence Middleton
Without mercy or restraint, and with pure, unfiltered access, Brandon Cronenberg burrows deep into the foundations of the human psyche. His sophomore feature, Possessor, is a mind-bending Inception meets Freaky Friday mash-up, filled to the brim with unrelenting bloodlust and untamed nastiness. Yet, the violence within is anything but mindless. Through a calculated battle for dominance over one consciousness, Cronenberg uses his two subjects to reveal humanity’s dark curiosity for voyeuristic savagery. If given a chance to pierce eyeballs and shatter teeth under a cloak of anonymity, would you take it?
Clearly influenced by his Father’s body of work (Videodrome, Scanners), Cronenberg Jr blends science-fiction with horror in an exploration of body-snatching technology, intertwining ideas of psychological hijacking and physical brutality upon a backdrop of corporate greed. Tanya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) works as a ‘possessor’ – a job which requires her to take cerebral hostage over the minds of her targets. Instead of planting subconscious ideas into the heads of her victims like Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb in Christopher Nolan’s Inception, Vos takes their bodies hostage, swapping skins as she assassinates influential corporate figures for her high paying customers. After completing the job, Vos turns the gun on herself, terminating the host and awaking in her own body.
With a steady hand, Cronenberg builds his world, enthralling us with curiosity and urgent questions as he goes, but steering clear of any straightforward answers. He opens with a quick prologue in which he establishes exactly how these cerebral takeovers play out. After awakening from this blood-thirsty demonstration, Vos, looking completely alien with her pink eyes and over-bleached hair, is thrown into a debriefing session with Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh). We see Vos identify objects from her past, attempting to unravel her own psyche from the mind of her latest host. Yet, despite being a big name in the world of Possession ( a ‘star performer’ as Girder calls her), the job seems to be getting to Vos. She appears strung out and detached from her own sense of self: needing to practice greetings and natural conversation before she visits her son. She mentions wanting to take some time for herself, but Girder is keen to put her back to work, having made a substantial deal with a new client.
Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott) is a sullen worker bee at a company owned by industrial hot-shot and Vos’ next hit, John Parse (Sean Bean). Tate just so happens to be dating the boss’s daughter, Ava (Tuppence Middleton), making him the perfect expendable candidate for possession. After Voss gleans enough information to mimic him successfully, Colin is body-snatched from the streets and fitted, via a brutal head drilling, with a cognitive device that allows Vos complete access to his mind. Cronenberg never explicitly goes into why Colin can fight back against Vos’ infiltration. Perhaps it’s because Vos has pushed herself to the point of exhaustion or maybe it’s due to his gender: Vos’ intense inspection of Tate’s body reveals a certain lack of experience when it comes to male possession. Either way, Vos is unable to maintain control over Colin and the two battle it out in an identity clash of titans.
Frustratingly, we can never be entirely sure of who is driving the vehicle when it comes to Colin’s body. Cronenberg remains purposefully ambiguous as to the individual needs and desires of his dual protagonists, allowing us to view them only through the perspectives of others. Despite wrestling around in their intertwined psyche, both Colin and Vos are entirely unknowable, and it’s hopeless to try and second guess their next move or understand their motives. It is Vos’ job to occupy Colin’s mind, but she also seems to be enjoying her time there. We see her having passionate sex with his girlfriend Ava, and, despite having been provided with a pistol to make her kills as quick and clean as possible, we see her relish in acts of unspeakable violence. Cronenberg never attempts to explain what Vos wants or why she acts this way, but the glory she takes in execution suggests that the job is a way for her to act upon her darkest fantasies. On the flip-side of this, every single one of Vos’ actions in character as Colin may also be representative of his exact desires. Might Colin himself want to brutally murder his girlfriend’s Father, having been degraded by him and forced into a low-ranking position in his company? He’s also sleeping with one of Ava’s friends, so might he also desire an exit route out of his relationship with Ava? The longer Colin and Vos share the same mental space, the more their minds merge. It soon becomes difficult to tell where Vos ends, and Colin begins, and impossible to identify which one of them is actually calling the shots.
The rotating camera work of Karim Hussain illustrates a world turned on its axis. Creepy close-ups linger over images of hands and body parts, creating an atmosphere of dread and distrust, and long, slow-moving shots of oppressive buildings aid the overwhelming mood of isolation. Otherworldly hues light the action in varying shades of pink and blue (perhaps also suggesting that this fight for autonomous leadership might also be an exploration of gender politics). Hussain captures the unrelenting gore with a true artistic vision: you’ve never seen blood splatter so pretty. Abbott and Riseborough are just as illuminating, they turn deeply layered performances, acting as different sides of the same coin, equally as polarised as they are united. Abbott delivers unhinged paranoia peppered with reckless desperation, and Riseborough remains fascinatingly enigmatic throughout.
Cronenberg might be following in Daddy’s footsteps, but here he proves that he has the chops to make it on his own. Possessor will creep its way under your skin and implant itself deep into your psyche. Good look trying to get it out of your head.