Following his debut feature Antiviral (2012), which took obsessive celebrity culture to the extreme as fans paid good money to be infected with a celebrity’s disease, Brandon Cronenberg returns with his highly-anticipated Possessor. It follows Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), a corporate assassin whose employer uses brain chips and biohacking to take over and control unsuspecting ‘hosts’ to carry out their hits, as she carries out her latest mission: to assassinate high-profile business magnate John Parse (Sean Bean), using Colin Tate (Christopher Abbot) as her host.
However, Vos allows her personal affairs to invade her work life, so Colin is able to resist and regain some of his free will. The hit goes awry, and the result is a nightmarish, body-switching horror with enough high-octane action to keep audiences gripped until its climax. The concept itself feels like it was cherrypicked from an unwritten Philip K. Dick novel, and the film wisely doesn’t dwell on its core idea and fleshes out a more interesting narrative. However, the screenplay is far from perfect, and while brutally entertaining it becomes a little messy and rushes the final third.
Despite this, Possessor is visually stunning. The body-horror apple doesn’t fall far from the body-horror tree! As with Antiviral, the bloody violence and close-ups of stabbings, furiously wild killings, and needles puncturing skin are visceral homages to Brandon’s famous father, David Cronenberg. Special kudos must also go to the SFX and VFX teams, as well as cinematographer Karim Hussain (who collaborated with Cronenberg on Antiviral), as there are some great abstract sequences containing maelstroms of nightmarish images, and some really well-executed shots.
A highlight is the transition between Vos taking control of Colin’s body. In some purgatory-like space, their two bodies melt into one another like wax. The SFX here are simple but have a great, horrifying effect. Similarly, when Vos is being debriefed by her boss/manager Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) on her previous mission, which ended in a furious knife attack and her host being shot at point blank range by police, her face is bathed in an eerie red light as a projector presents the bloody images of her actions. There are also frequent shots of cityscapes slowly turning around on its side, underscoring the twisted nature of Vos’ work.
The best thing about Possessor, however, is its central performances. Riseborough plays Vos boldly but subtly; her character is twisted and tortured by a suppressed inner conflict, and she brilliantly portrays this through deadpan looks and practicing simple greetings before she goes to see her son. Arguably, it’s Abbott’s whose role is more challenging, as he has to perform as somebody being controlled (essentially performed) by someone else. When Colin realises he’s no longer in control of himself, he seeks revenge, but he’s not even sure what against. Abbott excellently portrays this anguish and confusion mixed with rage, while at the same time losing control and having his very own physicality compromised.
Jennifer Jason Leigh puts in a good turn as the cold Girder, who wants Vos to carry out and finish her mission no matter the cost. Her performance here is reminiscent of her turn as Dr Ventress in Annihilation (2018), which was a similar role in that she was the one in control and determined to fulfil her goal. And as great as it is to see Sean Bean back in action, his performance as John Parse feels caricatured, and he seems unable to decide between his native Yorkshire accent and a more well-spoken RP.
Like most good sci-fi, Possessor poses good philosophical questions and there’s an intrinsic sense of nihilism to it. What does it mean to lose control? And who or what are we if we’re not in control of ourselves? These questions are never answered, alas—in the same way Vos (as Colin) is unable to grab a fuzzing granule of white matter in front of her, so too will audience try and put their finger on what is about to happen, and what it all means.
Possessor does well to keep audiences guessing and the narrative isn’t cliched, but the twist at the climax will divide people. For me, it felt rushed, as if the script was more preoccupied with the rest of the film and suddenly decided it just needed to end! There was so much potential building right the way up to the climax, but it felt wasted. That’s not to say Possessor isn’t worth seeing, as it’s visually stunning and helped by excellent performances and a cool concept. However, it’s what audiences will make of the final twist which will ultimately determine their final verdict.
UK • CANADA | 2020 | 103 MINUTES | 1.78:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
writer & director: Brandon Cronenberg.
starring: Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Rossif Sutherland, Tuppence Middleton, Sean Bean & Jennifer Jason Leigh.