Brandon Cronenberg is deeply confused. His pictorial style lures the viewer like a snake charmer. Cronenberg’s concepts hide behind vicious gore and violence. He references popular cinema with the confidence of somebody not trying to escape the shadow of a famous relative. The performances Cronenberg draws from some of Hollywood’s finest players are lost amidst this juggling act. The point is lost too.
Possessor asks the audience to ponder its very existenz. A young woman (Gabrielle Graham) plunges a long needle into her braided hair, then infiltrates a party where she stabs a man to death as though mashing potatoes. Her mission ends with her own suicide, it seems, but she can’t pull the trigger. Cronenberg treats viewers instead to the image of police gunning this black woman down. Not to worry, her body was merely a vessel for the mind of Tesya (Andrea Riseborough), a corporate assassin who uses a future technology to inhabit the minds of others. Hard cut to POSSESSOR, in big, screen-filling titles, a signal of its hunt for a cult.
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Returning to her body, Tesya is quizzed by Jennifer Jason Leigh’s corporate suit, Girder, about artifacts from her youth: the less she remembers, the less of her is left. Riseborough is a Royal Shakespeare Company type, and she has pushed back against her early roles in British Heritage productions with a recent string of genre roles. Black Mirror and Mandy let her slip into less glamorous and even unlikeable personalities. In Possessor, the personality is gone. Tesya is a shell. When she returns to see her husband and brooding blonde child, she has to practice greeting them how she ordinarily would. Cronenberg doesn’t linger on Tesya’s family life other than to insert some easy sympathy. Almost immediately, she is given a new assignment: to kill rival tech giant John Parse (Sean Bean, take a guess how it works out for him), and make it look like a murder-suicide by his daughter Ava’s (Tuppence Middleton) boyfriend, Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott).
Between Possessor, Tenet and a James Bond film that must exist in the minds of fans, the spy genre has returned in a big way in 2020, inflected with cerebral hemorrhaging. But Cronenberg’s latest film does little to explore its paranoid subjects, even as it sets them in a 24-hour surveillance state. The speech patterns that Tesya practices come across more like voyeurism in the style of Alfred Hitchcock or Brian De Palma than a serious effort to grapple with the feeling of watching. As agents kidnap Colin and prepare him to be possessed by Tesya, she and Girder sit in front of a giant screen in business attire taking notes — Persona has gone corporate. Later, while occupying Colin, Tesya monitors him by checking out his junk, as you would, then she goes to his workplace on Parse’s campus, where he is one of dozens of blue polo-uniformed techno-fascists who surveil user webcams for the sake of optimised marketing. The casual way this is passed across recalls a Phillip K. Dick short story, where the vastness of a conspiracy is hinted at while being subsumed in favour of druggy vibes. Cronenberg’s style is so highly aestheticized that people feel irrelevant anyway; it might have been more socially pertinent to understand the sprawling conspiracy.
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Abbott, so skin-flakingly obnoxious as Marnie’s boyfriend on HBO’s Girls, is perhaps cinema’s ultimate millennial yuppie, and as such is perfect casting here as Colin. His hang-dog eyes and self-pitying demeanor create remarkable contrast in scenes where he drags his feet around the vast penthouse apartment he shares with his beautiful kajillionaire girlfriend. The irony of modern dissociative feelings are evoked in scenes showing their social life, including a cameo from Deragh Campbell (Anne at 13,000 ft), who reassures Canadian viewers that this is home grown cinema. As characters huff vapes, consume cocaine and embrace open relationships like the world is ending, a La Dolce Vita–like carelessness fills the air. And why not? This is a world of accelerated capitalism — the only shock is that their apartment doesn’t end up underwater before the film’s end.
As Colin and Tesya battle for control of mind and body, Possessor leads to an inevitably gory showdown. Cronenberg’s melting effects, which look like a baby growing or dissolving in fast-forward, are undeniable. There is a detailed montage as images from the first act of the film are reused, each time from a different character’s point of view. Cronenberg lays out the situation so well that even in its more abstract passages, it never stops making sense. Always in danger of falling off the rails, that slight balance keeps the viewer rapt. Cronenberg slips but catches the rope before hitting the ground.
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Tesya revels in the glory of violence, which is easy enough until one gets stuck in that world and the consequences are real. That feeling of a video game is intentional, where blood is just data, where bodies are interchangable. There’s an easy queer reading to be made here, and surely the film will become the stuff of college papers for years to come — the Cult of Cronenberg. There is so much stuff in Possessor that you might think you’re at a venerable cinematic feast. But take away the squelching and splatter and there’s barely enough to fill an episode of Black Mirror. The food turns to cotton wool in your mouth.
Ben Flanagan (@manlikeflan) is a film critic and programmer based in London.