Brandon Cronenberg seems awfully concerned with the human body and what kind of damage can be done to it. His first feature since the highly impressive Antiviral in 2012, Possessor is essentially a cinematic, brutal attack on the senses, a panic-induced look at what makes us human and how that can be manipulated and ultimately, corrupted.
Possessor follows Vos (Andrea Riseborough), an agent who is able to hijack people’s bodies - and to some extent minds - and then uses them to commit murder for the benefit of her employer. Her husband and young son are blissfully unaware of Vos’ true vocation, but when she ends up stuck in a subject’s mind and unable to return to her own body, her identity and sense of self starts to crumble, as does her victim’s.
Possessor will without a doubt be a divisive film - you’ll either love or you’ll hate it, there won’t be any middle ground. From a technical perspective, it’s masterful. Every single frame is perfect and strange, yet intrusive and stimulating in a way that is impossible to resist. This is a violent film, not just in the sense of the gore, of which there is plenty, but in the sense that watching it is an exhausting, consuming task. Cronenberg and his DP Karim Hussain never turn the camera away from the horrid abuse and scenes of murder, instead forcing us to watch it. And why shouldn’t we? We have all made the conscious choice to watch Possessor and anything its grim world might entail, so watch we must.
Visually, Possessor is sublime. Cronenberg’s film exists in that rare place where something atrocious and ugly meets beautiful. It could be said to be more interested in style than substance, but the film is rich with ideas and themes, especially around one’s identity. Some of these don’t feel fully developed, but it is so deeply immersive, it’s hard to remember that after the film is over and you’re trying to catch your breath as the credits roll. The biggest issue is that the biggest themes are only communicated visually and while it’s striking, Cronenberg never quite manages to burrow into them properly.
Andrea Riseborough continues her impressive streak of bold roles with Vos. Possessor looks deep into her humanity, or perhaps the lack of it, and Riseborough opens herself up for us to examine it in detail. Vos is restless, devastated, exhausted and desperate - Riseborough shows all of these on Vos’ face and body – it’s in the way she carries herself, the way she rehearses greeting her son after returning home and how she gazes at her mysterious employer Girder, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh.
Essentially, Vos wears another human as a mask and adapts to their body and life. Girder calls her a “star performer”. We are taught to be afraid of people in masks – it’s a sign of danger – but if she wears the mask, the meatsuit so to speak, shouldn’t we be afraid of her? Cronenberg leans heavily into the body horror elements of the narrative, creating a sick and twisted spectacle of gore, aided greatly by old-school camera tricks and practical effects by Dan Martin.
Equally impressive is Christopher Abbott, who’s role isn’t quite as flashy but arguably more challenging. In a film that reflects inwards, rather than outwardly stating facts, Abbott’s Colin is as close as it gets to an antagonist, except Colin is also Vos’ victim. He seeks revenge but isn’t sure what he is fighting against. His own body has been compromised. It’s a fascinating dynamic, one that feels surprisingly engaging for the audience who might otherwise be put off by the film’s otherwise cold front. Possessor is a film that is endlessly fascinated by humanity, but somehow completely lacks it. It is also cruel in many ways - the ending will potentially enrage many, but you can’t fault Cronenberg for lack of ambition and pushing boundaries.
As with Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror masterpiece Alien, Possessor’s look at our near-future feels mechanic and depressing rather than hi-tech and ultra-cool. There’s an inherent nihilism to its worldview, which only makes it all the more interesting as Cronenberg keeps turning up the ante and the gore. Things lag a little in the middle as Cronenberg struggles to truly dig into the themes he so masterfully sets up in the first act, with the film relying more on heavy-handed dialogue.
Ultimately, Possessor asks more questions than it answers, which is equally delicious as it is frustrating. This is a visually astonishing, utterly compelling and delightfully twisted sci-fi horror about a woman and a man battling it out to rule a single body. It constantly questions what it means to be human and if we are to be scared of ourselves. Love it or hate it, this is a film that will have you thinking about it for weeks to come.
Possessor is available on digital platforms in the UK from November 27.