One of the greatest compliments that you can pay to Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor is that it feels just like his legendary dad could have made it in his prime. Here is a blood-soaked thriller that uses uncompromising body horror to pick at some more spiritual scabs, confronting questions of identity, gender, and self-ownership alongside mountains of gore, sex, and blackly comic fun. To imitate a genre master, let alone one who shares your name, is a mighty task to set for yourself, but Cronenberg Jr succeeds completely, making for one of 2020’s most transgressively thrilling cinematic experiences.
Set in an unspecified near-future city, Possessor throws you in at the deep end, as a seemingly manic young woman at a party grabs a knife and butchers the guest of honour before dying in a shootout with the police. As it turns out, this woman was not in control of her body at the time – the strings instead being pulled by a body-swapping assassin named, unimprovably, Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough). After passing a psych evaluation, Tasya’s disquieting boss Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) gives her the next target – tech mogul John Parse (an entertainingly slimy cameo for Sean Bean).
Her ‘sleeve’ for the gig is Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), the underachieving, formerly coke dealing, boyfriend of Parse’s daughter Ava (Tuppence Middleton). Things go sideways almost immediately, Colin proving unexpectedly able to resist Tasya’s influence. From there, Possessor is never less than nerve-wracking, every situation teetering on a knife edge as Tasya and Colin wrestle for control. It lends a wildly exciting unpredictability to the film without having to resort to cheap twists, and the whole final third is absolutely heart-in-mouth stuff.
Riseborough brings her typical quietly detached excellence (between this and 2018’s Mandy, she’s proving the go-to actor for magnificent arthouse schlock), but the real revelation is Abbott. He has to inhabit Colin, Tasya, and the tortured in-between state and doesn’t put a foot wrong. It’s the kind of performance that would (and should) win awards if horror movies weren’t so maligned come Oscar season, Abbott putting in far more interesting and emotionally resonant work than any number of worthy biopics or ‘issue’ movies.
Scenes in which Colin and Tasya’s consciences merge are handled with trippy aplomb, mesmerising yet disorienting, and always carrying an erotic charge that becomes more sinister as time goes on. Possessor is an incredibly explicit film, both in its violence and sexual content, with moments so freaky towards the climax that they make an early scene of impromptu brain surgery seem positively tame. These scenes all serve a purpose, driving home the dual identity crises of Tasya and Colin, but even if they didn’t, their brutality and macabre sense of humour make them easily worth the price of admission.
Even when things are peaceful, Cronenberg keeps you off-balance with a perpetually misty city-scape and queasy, almost organic-looking retro-futurist tech designs – the mind-melding kit in particular would make HR Giger proud. The puppeteering premise remains existentially terrifying throughout, neatly matched by Colin’s perverted day job of spying through people’s webcams to gather data for Parse’s firm. Much of Possessor is simply about the act of observing, taken to the extreme limit of voyeurism. If you have the stomach for it, you won’t be able to avert your eyes for even a second.