Describing a particularly surreal film as a ‘head trip’ is par for the course, but it feels particularly appropriate for Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor (2020), a science fiction film about a professional killer literally taking a ride inside other people’s minds.
Andrea Riseborough plays Tasya Vos, a woman who – via a neural implant and a secret machine – can project her consciousness into the brains of other people and control their actions. She can return back to her own body by forcing her host to commit suicide.
Despite the regular interventions of her handler Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Vos is slowly beginning to lose control of her own identity, and this is pulling her away from her husband Michael (Rossif Sutherland) and son Ira (Gage Graham-Arbuthnot). In this fragile state, she reluctantly agrees to assassinate a powerful CEO (Sean Bean) only to face a live-or-death crisis when her host (Christopher Abbott) fights back.
Possessor is a remarkably bold film. While a story about a professional killer would almost inevitably contain some violence, Cronenberg has given his film a truly visceral embracement of murderous cruelty. Vos is losing control of her own mind by so much exposure to other people’s, and it is partly manifesting as an obsession with murder via knifes and blades rather than with guns. It feels deeply perverse – almost like a craving for intimacy and touch – and generates some particularly confronting scenes of realistic violence and gore. This level of violence, which does feel well-justified, appears to have led some viewers and critics to misinterpret Possessor as a horror film. Despite the blood and a growing level of paranoia, the film feels not only definitively science fictional but superbly so at that. Dominated by themes of intimacy, identity, and personal connection, it derives this material from a speculative piece of technology. It is smartly developed and powerfully expressed.
The film benefits enormously from a focus on physical in-camera effects over computer-generated visuals. It gives Vos’ crisis a strong physicality and weight, something sorely in need when telling such a body-oriented and palpable story. It also considerably ups the squeamish nature of the material; viewers sensitive to such fare should tread carefully.
Andrea Riseborough seems almost unrecognisable as Vos: frail, and seemingly hollowed-out by her stressful and disorienting profession. It is a powerful performance, both monstrous and tragic, and largely through her performance it manages to be sympathetic despite her actions. Christopher Abbott does exceptional work with a difficult part: as assassination host Colin Tate, he is tasked with playing Tate in normal circumstances, Tate under Vos’ control, and a conflicted personality in-between as one identity fights to take back control from another. Supporting performances are solid across the board, including Sean Bean as an actively cruel technology magnate and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Vos’ manipulative handler
There is a such a delicate balance undertaken here: Possessor is in turns shocking and tragic, suspenseful and inevitable, repellent and enticing. Brandon Cronenberg is well on his way to establishing himself as one of Canada’s finest contemporary filmmakers, and as a masterful creator of bleak, provocative science fiction.