Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor is a film, just based on its broad premise, that oozes with sick potential. A tech-based thriller filled with queasy horror, the film is like Inception and Ghost in the Shell if dunked in nightmarish psychedelia. And at times, its just as loopily unrealized as a drug-trip. But, on the other hand, watching ultra-gory psychic warfare over the control of people’s bodies can still find its own pleasures. Though set in an alternate 2008, Possessor is still basked in a more analog world, all while still touching on the urgent concerns of our present: gender, privacy, and corporate control.
The film’s compelling prologue lays its world all on the table. Holly (Gabrielle Graham) sits alone in a musty hotel room and sticks a metal electrode into the top of her skull; her flesh quickly starts a flowing, just to clear if there was any confusion that Brandon Cronenberg is David’s son. Later, at a Toronto restaurant, Holly walks up to a grimy VIP of some kind and stabs him in the neck and body, many, many, many times. Blood splatters all over her tracksuit and all-white shoes. She then puts the victim’s gun in her mouth, but Holly can’t seem to pull the trigger. When the cops show up a moment later, they instead do the honors. Then, in a hyperbaric chamber across town, a woman named Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) gasps awake. Another job well done. Don’t expect to learn very much about the mysterious company that runs this mercenary science experiment; Cronenberg sublimates the world-building into abstraction, though a little sci-fi jargon in Possessor does go a long way, and Jennifer Jason Leigh effectively teases our curiosity in her brief role as the middle-manager who steers Tasya back into her real, default identity after each gig. All you really need to know, though, is that Tasya is apart of some violent body-hopping business, and that every assignment seems to leave her increasingly unsettled in her own skin. Tasya has to be reminded that she and her husband have separated; she has to rehearse what she’ll say to him when she drops by to visit their young son. Given that Riseborough has become such a chameleon, it’s kind of fun to watch her play someone who’s lost between parts.
That being said though, Risborough won’t be onscreen for too long. Tasya is soon assigned another body to inhabit, and there’s no guarantee that she’ll return to her own intact. The new target’s name is Colin (Christopher Abbott), a smoldering ruin of a man whose girlfriend’s father (Sean Bean) just happens to be the CEO of a data-mining conglomerate. Tasya’s client wants the mogul dead so they can assume control of the business, and pinning the murder on his potential son-in-law would be the perfect crime. Our body hacker only has three days before the host’s psyche rejects her, but it won’t be easy to maintain her sense of self while also inhabiting Colin convincingly enough to fool his girlfriend (Tuppence Middleton) into thinking he’s still in there.
Possessor is at its best when its viscerally peeling a soul out of its body, and Cronenberg is in full command of the material whenever he can visualize the absolute mindbender of two ghosts competing for control over one shell. Whatever logistical questions might be raised by the process of implanting Tasya into Colin’s body are snuffed out by the raw spectacle of it all, as Cronenberg stretches the transfiguration into a gruesome symphony of in-camera lighting tricks courtesy of cinematographer Karim Hussain and nightmarish practical effects courtesy of prosthetics supervisor Daniel Martin. Bodies melt into liquid flesh; the camera travels through a tunnel of organs. It’s a digital experience made agonizingly physical, and the poetry of seeing that transference in motion is far more expressive than anything Possessor is able to do with its lukewarm narrative. Compelling as it can be to watch Abbot slowly morph from placid to off-the-chain erratic, Tasya’s own uneasy presence is too often obscured by a general veil of confusion as “Colin” tries not to get caught. The feverish psychodrama of the whole situation makes for a sharp contrast against the clean lines of Rupert Lazarus’ production design and the Toronto cityscape, and a thick smog of unease sets in as Tasya’s shifting identity clashes against the workings of an algorithmic world, but Cronenberg seems paralyzed by all of the possibilities he wants to pursue (or all the odd hand-held camerawork he occasionally implements). Over time, Possessor begins to lose its own sense of self — it’s strange that such an oblique movie can be so broadly foreseeable — and builds to a third act that seems to scramble for its own identity as desperately as Tasya ever does.
But if his film struggles to articulate why the stability of being someone is too valuable to exchange for the freedom of being anyone, Cronenberg only gets better and better at illustrating the same point. Are we even ourselves, or is free will just the daily morning sales pitch we give ourselves? There are wickedly destabilizing scenes where Abbott and Riseborough’s voices are layered, and others where their bodies are mashed together like some latex mythic creature. Though, the film may never wrest control of your mind, it does act more as the most unnerving of nightmares: the imagery lingers much more than anything else. Provocatively gnarly and stylishly disturbing, Possessor is a film that may struggle with its latent themes, but it remains squeamishly good at peeling and creeping under your skin.
Possessor will be released in Select Theaters and Drive-Ins on October 2