The concept of surrendering control of your own body to an external entity is well-established in film, from bodysnatching aliens to possessing demons, but often these events are viewed from an outside perspective. The protagonist is one who discovers the truth, either by chance or design, and who attempts to turn the tide against the invading force. It is rare to see a film show the experience of the one being possessed, and rarer still to detail the act of possession, which makes Possessor an interesting prospect indeed.
A corporate assassin uses a machine to take over a victim, using their body to commit murder-for-hire then suicide, offering the perfect patsy to take the blame without argument. We see both victim and possessor acting and speaking as one, but they are two and only one remains in control. Identity is refreshingly questioned, with echoes of the assassin’s self amidst the personality of the possessed and the dysmorphic disassociation that would arise from being in the body of another.
The writer and director is Brandon Cronenberg, son of David, and there are common threads between the work of father and child here. Perhaps growing up on the sets of his father’s films, with their giant insects and human corruptions, embedded something dark within him, yet his stories feel more nihilistic than Cronenberg senior’s. He is as much a visionary in his own right as he is a chip off the old block, so to speak, and a fine filmmaker with an incredible eye for the surreal.
This is retro-esque science fiction which, in the true spirit of sci-fi, offers social commentary on our current standing as a society. No one ever seems to be present, though there is less smartphone-screen-staring than one might expect, yet technology is at the heart of this film, including a malevolent data mining corporation who watch webcams to identify products in users’ homes in a bizarre invasive market research strategy that is hardly unlikely. Workers at this grimy place sit cramped together with VR headsets which simulate executive corner offices and computer screens, yet they are far from these luxurious mirages in reality. This is mirrored in the act of possession itself, as the possessor of the film’s title lies on a bed wearing a vast face-hugging headset that descends from the ceiling to transport their consciousness to their victim, but still allows them to talk from their own lips. The virtual and real are merged but separate, and Cronenberg is definitive on the line that should exist, even when he allows it to blur.
Of course, a Cronenberg film would not be a Cronenberg film—senior or junior—without body horror, and there is plenty of that on display, though often subversively. Still, from horrifically graphic murder sequences to nightmarish battles of the mind, this is not a film for the faint-hearted or weak of gut. The use of wax is particularly impressive, as one form is melted away and another grown, creating trippy visuals made using in-camera effects instead of digital renderings. This authenticity in form, particularly when expressed in a non-physical moment within the narrative, builds a strange connection between reality and projection, aligning the solidity of mental control against the firm mass of a physical body.
The possessor of the title is played with cold simmer by Andrea Riseborough, a consistently powerful actor making more and more intriguing decisions in her career. She is as ghostlike as her white hair as she sleepwalks through her presented life with her husband and son, assuming a spectral existence that occasionally possesses space within their home but never stays too long. Her true life is spent asleep, and it is here she is awake when in control of another. Her performance is chilling, as if she has injected herself with ice, and it is a masterclass in character realisation. Her assassin’s psychopathic nature lends itself perfectly to her work, and it is hardly a surprise that one who loves killing would find work as a hired killer, even if it is not her own fingers clasped around the knife-handle but that of her involuntary avatar. We see her undertake a short possession in the opening sequence, with Gabrielle Graham playing her first victim. Graham shows herself to be an immense talent, carrying the start of the film with incredible nuance. The main target throughout, however, is performed with a conflicting storm beneath a calm exterior by Christopher Abbott. He holds his own against Riseborough, which is no mean feat, and delivers a solid show.
There are some acting veterans within the cast also, including Sean Bean as a horrific, bullying tech CEO, and Jennifer Jason Leigh as the assassin’s handler, mentor, and superior. It is Leigh that is the most terrifying, presenting her character with cold control and a strange mania in a paradoxical vision of one truly without conscience. The choice of her casting is interesting, as she worked with Cronenberg’s father on the VR body-horror eXistenZ, but what she presents is different to anything of her I have seen before. She is chilling and visceral, and without doubt a formidable presence.
Possessor is not a nice film, and it is not about nice people. As it moves forward and delves into the splitting psyche of its two main characters, the viewer is forced to question everything they see, but it is in this that the film shows its biggest strength. It is a suggestion of horror as much as it is a reality of it, much like the act of possession which gives the narrative its backbone. The most horrific moments are those outside of reality, where we see inside the minds of the characters, and they have stuck with me, possessing me, holding a place within my own mind long after the film has finished. Perhaps this is Possessor’s greatest triumph, but also its most frightening aspect as a piece of art. Possessor will not let you go.