From Videodrome to Dead Ringers to The Fly, director David Cronenberg is considered a pioneer in the body horror genre, with many of his more famous horror films – particularly in the 1980s – featuring horrifying and grotesque bodily infections and transformations. The reason I’m bringing up David Cronenberg is not to talk about him, but because it may come as a surprise to some genre fans that the latest Cronenberg science-fiction horror film, Possessor, doesn’t come from David Cronenberg, but instead from his son, Brandon Cronenberg, in his second feature length film.
Possessor, written and directed by Brandon Crongenberg, follows corporate assassin Tasya Vos (played by Andrea Riseborough) who, using state of the art technology, is able to inhabit other people’s bodies, and use them to commit assassinations for the benefit of the company. Though she has a special knack for this type of work, her violent acts and urges start to take a toll on her mental state and ability to have control over the mind of others. It is on her latest assignment where she possesses the mind and body of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott) she soon finds herself trapped there as his identity threatens to overtake her own.
The premise of an woman overtaking another person’s body to use it to murder others sounds like Brandon Cronenberg is embracing his father’s use of body horror. While there is certainly a decent amount of gore and blood in this film, Brandon successfully manages to bring his own voice and unique vision to the sci-fi/horror genre with a well crafted script, captivating direction, great performances, and beautiful cinematography.
Andrea Riseborough (Battle of the Sexes, Mandy, “ZeroZeroZero”) plays the film’s protagonist Tasya Vos, and while we don’t see that much of her in the second and third act, she does a great job of showing this character’s torment and the subtitles in how much this job is taking a toll on her. I especially enjoyed the scenes where she’s acting alongside Jennifer Jason Leigh’s (The Hateful Eight, Annihilation, “Atypical”) character, who also did a great job in the film. Besides Andrea, the other standout performance comes from Christopher Abbott (It Comes at Night, First Man, “Catch-22”) as Colin Tate. Playing the duality and conflicting identities inside this man’s head mustn’t have been easy, and at times you’re not even sure which character is in control. He does a fantastic job playing both Vos’ mental breakdown and loss of control as well as Tate’s desperate attempt towards the end to get his body back. Other supporting actors like Sean Bean (“Game of Thrones”) as John Parse, Rossif Sutherland (Hyena Road) as Michael Vos, and Tuppence Middleton (“Sense8”) as Ava Parse also do great jobs. All a round I thought the actors were very compelling, even if the characters themselves always weren’t.
Brandon Cronenberg has proven himself a visionary director, with some of his standout scenes being the more metaphysical sequences, particularly when Tasya first transmits her consciousness into Colin, and later on when Colin uses her as a mask. It was during these sequences, more so than I’d say than the traditional gore, that standout in my mind, though some of the more traditional gore in the real world is also quite effective as sparse as it is. Cronenberg’s flare for horror really shines through in this film not just with the ideas and the effects, but even when certain shots linger on characters or the music cuts out. That, combined with Karim Hussain’s wonderful, deliberate, and at times very stylish, cinematography, makes for extremely effective filmmaking.
Finally, I like how the Cronenberg’s script kept the story very simple, which made the horror more effective. I think it could’ve been easy for the film to get lost in it’s own concept, but it does a great job exploring the story and keeping it very character oriented. However, I think where the movie falters is in it’s characterization. If we got to delve more into Tasya’s psyche and how her job has affected her mental state, it would’ve made her overall arc much more engaging, because while she was serviceable for the story, there are a few character moments I wish the movie explored more. There was a great moment early on where she’s practicing how she’s going to talk to her ex-husband – which is something she does to impersonate others. I thought that was such a great scene and way to show how she’s slowly her own self-identity. I wish there were more moments like that at the beginning, especially with the ending and final few scenes being so tense, horrifying, and effective. There were also a few threads that didn’t really lead to anything, particularly in the middle. Particularly when Tasya starts to see things that are never really explained, why Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character wants to infiltrate this company so badly or what’s at stake. Also, a minor character that comes back in addition to other characters who follow Tasya as Colin, these scenes felt a little contrived and ultimately don’t lead to much (except for a metaphysical sequence, but the scenes leading up to halted the film’s pace a bit).
Verdict: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
Despite some weaker characterizations and a few loose threads, Possessor is an extremely effective horror sci-fi experience. Great direction, great supporting and lead performances, beautiful and stylish cinematography, effective moments of gore and horror, and a wonderfully chilling and tense ending, lead to a really great film. Brandon Cronenberg, despite following in the footsteps of his father, has been able to craft a vision and a voice of his own. The unique combination of style, metaphysical as well as realistic body horror, and a darker exploration of identity, sanity, and privacy, lead to one of the more original horror films of the year.