‘Possessor’ Review: A Fresh Cronenbergian Nightmare
It’s unlikely that Brandon Cronenberg could ever fully shake his father’s shadow, after all, David Cronenberg’s legacy looms large and films like Videodrome and The Fly stand as classics of the sci-fi/body-horror genre. Yet, even before he slowed his output, the elder was already shifting gears. In the aughts, he directed psychological thrillers like A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, and his last film Maps to the Stars was a grim Hollywood satire. So who better to fill this Cronenbergian vacuum than someone who already bears the name? In 2012, Brandon made his feature debut with Antiviral, a sci-fi thriller about a boutique celebrity disease market, and now with his second feature: Possessor, he further establishes himself in the conversation.
The plot is pure Phillip K. Dick-style corporate espionage, Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) works for a shadowy corporation as a contract assassin that infiltrates people’s minds to murder by proxy. When an assignment goes haywire Vos finds herself trapped in the body of a man whose psyche grapples with hers to regain control, blocking her means of escape. Riseborough’s steely gaze – her eyes withdrawn into a tempest of thought – was last seen piercing through the first half of Mandy, and her presence here as Tasya Vos serves a similar purpose: an emotional anchor in an otherwise unhinged world.
Vos, who is alienated from her husband and child, uses her work as an outlet for her repressed violent and sexual impulses. Cronenberg doesn’t shy from graphic depictions of both, which at times hit uncomfortable extremes, but even in their most excessive forms feel part and parcel with the narrative. He cross-cuts the sex and violence in predictable, yet effective ways, further blurring Vos’s work and home life. This compartmentalization of the two worlds is critical to Posessor’s overarching themes.
The host body that Vos invades belongs to Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott) who works for a large corporation himself. His job is to monitor an array of private webcam footage and pull market research while spying on people’s homes. This low on the totem pole position granted through the mercy of his girlfriend’s father encapsulates his passivity. Tate’s reluctance to act serves as a stumbling block for Vos later on as she is forced to confront her demons through him. Zooming out from this interpersonal conflict, it’s important to note that the behaviors of both are propelled by corporate interest. At the core of the conflict is a hostile corporate takeover with the individuals on the ground, having sublimated their wants, are simply pawns in the larger picture.
One would think that Brandon Cronenberg’s virus-centric sci-fi Antiviral would be the more relevant film given the global pandemic, but in fact, the opposite is true and there is unquestionable timeliness to Possessor’s disturbing manifestations. In the aftermath of the 2020 U.S. election, we are left with a piercing question of whether the violence and cruelty of the last four years could be considered a ‘hijacking’ of the American body politic, or an ugly and unbearable expression of its unrestrained impulses. Tate rattles out this type of question at the climax of the film: “What have you done to me?’ he says, ‘I haven’t been in control of myself lately,” – to which Vos retorts: “But you have.” Ultimately, it’s not the violence or sex, but this disturbing riddle of identity, control, and culpability that arms Possessor with a satiric bite so ravenous it befits the Cronenberg name.
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