Note: The writer of this review watched Possessor from home on a digital screener. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.
Possessor is a mindfuck without a safe word: a slick, nasty bit of science-fiction pulp that’s as interested in shredding nerves as buzzing the brain they’re attached to. The premise, a nightmare vision of bodies snatched and unwillfully weaponized, could have been extracted straight from the racing noggin of Philip K. Dick. But that author’s dystopian premonitions are just one aspect of its genre alchemy, a stylish mash-up of Ghost In The Shell, Inception, Under The Skin, and Olivier Assayas’ corporate-espionage thriller demonlover. And as it’s both written and directed by Brandon Cronenberg, son of Canadian horror maestro David, it should probably come as no great shock that Possessor includes some truly gnarly mutilation of the flesh alongside the mental variety.
Violations of the mind and body have always been a cornerstone of the Cronenberg family business. Brandon puts that preoccupation front and center in the opening frames of Possessor, with a close-up of a young woman plunging what looks like a stereo jack right into her own scalp. A few minutes later, she’s joined a gaggle of caterers in matching blue getups, scaled a shimmering skyscraper by foot and elevator, and stepped under the moody lighting (and modernist overhead artwork) of a swanky soirée. She’s there but a moment before getting down to business: the murder of one of the party guests, who she viciously stabs to death, in a sequence that promptly pays off the dreamy unease of this in-media-res prologue with geysers of blood.
The world of Possessor is ours but not. Though the production design—bathed in ominous shades of orange and red—suggests some kind of troubling near future, the film actually unfolds in an alternate past: a sleekly hopeless 2008. The dead man was a wealthy lawyer. His assassin was not herself. Pulling the strings of her every move was Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), cold-blooded specialist in a new field of killing by forced proxy. Through a technology that Cronenberg, thankfully, does not overly belabor or explain, Tasya enters the heads and hijacks the bodies of strangers, effectively disguising herself as a loved one or employee in order to get close to her targets. She’s the best at what she does—or so she’s assured by her handler (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who arranges the contracts and whispers instructions into Tasya’s ear while she’s lying flat on a table, her consciousness projected into another’s.
Just as the director’s first feature, Antiviral, perverted celebrity worship into a queasy new world order, Possessor plugs its own ropy umbilical cord of anxiety into the privacy concerns of an unsecured world: Even without a subplot involving data mining, it’d be clear that Cronenberg is taking identity theft to an irl extreme. Yet the metaphor of the film’s outlandish conceit is malleable. “What’s the narrative?” Tasya asks during a briefing on her new assignment, before she begins studying the mark’s vocal patterns; when she zaps back into her own body after a job, there’s a whole test to make sure she hasn’t lost herself, like a method actor who went too deep into the process. But even the “real” Tasya may be something of a performance: On her way to see her estranged husband (Rossif Sutherland) and son, she practices her delivery of banal chitchat. The role’s a perfect fit for Riseborough, a consummate character actor who slides so skillfully into a part that you’d swear you’re seeing someone brand new each time she appears on screen.
The plot comes to revolve around the contract killing of a powerful CEO (Sean Bean, possibly fulfilling his usual destiny to die spectacularly). To get within striking distance, Tasya assumes the appearance of his daughter’s boyfriend, played by Christopher Abbott in what essentially amounts to a plum dual role. Abbott, so terrifically volatile as the asshole millennial anti-hero of James White, expertly conveys an out-of-body dislocation—the impression of Riseborough moving behind his eyes and feeling her way through a life that isn’t hers. Possessor is like a spy movie that transforms before us into a sinister Freaky Friday. As the two characters begin to war for control of the same fragile mind, Cronenberg revels in phantasmagorical abstraction: limbs and faces dis- and reassembling during the initial invasion, one star donning the other’s visage like one of Leatherface’s grotesque stitched-together skin masks.
The conflict is existential, a tug-of-war for identity. One might argue that Possessor occasionally suffers from the same. It seems torn, at times, between its wealth of potential hard sci-fi ideas and Cronenberg’s preference for hardcore thrills. The violence in the film is extreme and shocking, to the point where tacking Uncut on the end of the title—despite the fact that this is the first version of the movie to be released—feels as much like a useful disclaimer as a blatant bid for midnight-movie business. In the end, Possessor privileges the visceral over the cerebral. Which is not to deny that it lands somewhere rather provocative as a character study. In a pool of blood, teeth, and severed digits floats an unnerving suggestion: For some, the threat of losing your identity is much less scary than the thought of having to commit to it.