All of my favorite movies run around 90 minutes. It’s not that I don’t love a long film. One of the most influential cinematic experiences of my life runs seven hours. But there’s something incredibly special about a movie that creates magic in that hour-and-a-half framework. Brandon Cronenberg’s sophomore feature Possessor does just that, packing a stylish, tightly wrapped anxiety attack of a techno-horror movie into 97 minutes, crafting one of the best films of 2020.
Andrea Riseborough is the grounding force at the center of the ambitious retro-futuristic story set in 2008. She’s Tasya Vos, an assassin who uses high-tech machinery in order to take over the bodies of people close to her target before utilizing her new body to fulfill her mission. It’s the kind of sci-fi set up that wouldn’t be out of place in a straight-to-VOD Bruce Willis movie or the latest Christopher Nolan flick. But if you’ve seen Cronenberg’s debut, Antiviral, you’ll know he’s skilled at drawing out the bleakness and brutality of technology and our bodies in a much more complex and drastic way than either of those Hollywood icons. Whereas Antiviral was all clinical neon lights, medical whites, and clean lines you could cut yourself on, Possessor is more concerned with the blurred edges of everyday life, identity, and Tasya’s ever-fraying mind.
See, skipping through the lives of others isn’t easy. The neural link technology her employers use is glitchy, temperamental, and the more brains and bodies that Tasya possesses, the farther she gets from her own. When she takes the body of a new assassin, Colin (Christopher Abbott), her control begins to slip, descending into an all-out war for her mind and his corporeal form. Cronenberg’s deft hands craft a world that feels so eerily familiar it’s even more terrifying when that reality starts to slip. Though I am a huge fan of Antiviral, this does feel like a step up for the director, with his uniquely chilling style still a key part of the overall landscape of Possessor but an engaging story and characters that matter take precedence over all.
Abott and Riseborough’s battle for dominance is at the dark heart of Possessor. It’s graphic, gruesome, and driven by two killer performances. If there were any justice then both would be up for praise and statues during the upcoming award season, but for a film this out-there that’s unlikely. Riseborough brings a sense of deep sadness and loss to her assassin. Who was she before she began to kill? Quiet moments like Tasya practicing phrases to say before she sees her family build out that loneliness well. Although she never gets to sit in it too long as she can’t face a life without her corporate overlords. Abbot gets to play with that as well, showcasing an incomprehensible rage and confusion in a fight for his own mind and body. It’s a killer performance that gets better as we move towards Possessor‘s grim conclusion.
One of the most intriguing things about Possessor is that it shouldn’t feel as vibrant and thrilling as it does. Arguably, it owes a lot to films like eXistenZ–directed by Cronenberg’s father–Ghost in the Shell, and Paprika. But the important distinction between Possessor and the films of someone like Nolan—who regularly lifts from anime and lesser known sci-fi flicks for his own creations—is that Cronenberg is doing something new. The retro futuristic ’70s-influenced aesthetic and the absolute commitment to crafting a dark thriller. The commentary around how much control we have over who we are in a digital age. These make Possessor feel like a worthwhile addition to the cyberpunk, techno-thriller canon rather than a derivative wannabe.
Cronenberg’s thoughtful darkness is key, too. Possessor’s fear of technology refuses to point a finger at a younger generation, instead keeping its gaze steadily on the corporations that wield this power. And in that same vein, it doesn’t glamorize tech or the future with a James Bond riff. There’s not enough humor here to draw a direct line, but Possessor seems to owe as much to the ultraviolent futures of Paul Verheoeven as he does to his own body-horror auteur father. And just like both of those trailblazers, Cronenberg’s dedication to practical effects gives Possessor a squeamish realness that gets under your skin. How satisfied you’ll feel with the film’s ending depends how much you get from the overall bleakness. But for this reviewer, it was a nastily fitting end to a shockingly good sophomore outing from Cronenberg.
Possessor opened Fantastic Fest 2020.
Header Image: Neon