In the world of POSSESSOR, the second feature from Brandon Cronenberg, a filmmaker who takes after his father in the mystic arts of body horror, control is everything. For Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), literal control — mind control to be exact — is her bread and butter. Working as an assassin for a secretive organization who, thanks to near-future technology, are able to inhabit other people’s minds, spends her days learning everything about her “hosts” and then takes over, “playing” them until she reaches her target who she then ruthlessly — and usually violently — executes.
Tasya (Cronenberg has a knack for concocting strange memorable names) does a good job, but it doesn’t come easy and its symptoms are beginning to wear on her. With empty eyes, Risborough inhabits the headspace of a slowly decaying woman who finds more meaning in assassinations than in conversations with her estranged family. Her supervisor Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh, once again lovably playing a subdued weirdo) even thinks she deserves a break, but in his own bloody take on the “one last job” cliché, Mr. Cronenberg sends his already broken protagonist into the depths of psychotic insanity with one last plunge into someone else’s mind.
That someone else turns out to be Colin (Christopher Abbott), the boyfriend of the target’s daughter and a man who has his own issues with self-control. In other words, the perfect “host” and the perfect suspect for the eventual assassination of a rival CEO. From there, as Tasya takes over and inhabits Colin’s body, POSSESSOR spirals into a psychological whirlwind of intertwining minds and mangled bodies as Tasya inevitably begins to lose control of her host and herself. Like Cronenberg’s last film, ANTIVIRAL, which dealt with the control of other bodies through the purchase and sale of genetic material, POSSESSOR gleefully takes a stroll into the mind and dismantles it to its barest and most violent form. With a slick, clinical visual style that looks something like the inside of an Apple Store with more blood on the walls, Cronenberg once again shows his unique sense of world building, where people are just playthings for large, monolithic companies looking to make a quick buck. Karim Hussain’s cinematography suitably captures this world as well as the minds of its characters, combining wide shots that minimize its human occupants among a cold uncaring world with the more surreal and in your face imagery of Cronenberg’s impression of the inner mind, a realm filled with anguished false faces and vibrant hues of burnt oranges and blood reds.
With a protagonist that is less a hero and more of a pitiable subject, Ms. Riseborough continues to branch out into new and exciting territories as a performer as she inhabits Cronenberg’s off-kilter world with a character that becomes increasingly reprehensible as the film moves on. Even as Cronenberg’s script doesn’t fully earn Tasya’s descent into madness and uncertainty on a sympathetic level, Riseborough in her robotic shell lets little moments of the trapped woman beneath to emerge through her character’s icy exterior. As her unlucky “host”, Mr. Abbott also brings palpable desperation to a man just really having the worst few days of his life as he slowly becomes aware of someone else crashing around in his mind and body. In those moments where he performs as “Tasya as Colin” as well as in his own character’s journey, which becomes as feral as Tasya’s, Abbott showcases his range as a performer even when he’s essentially cast as a literal bag of meat at the mercy of forces beyond his comprehension.
Indeed, Mr. Cronenberg’s film is at its best when he takes advantage of his main conceit: a messy cavalcade of people playing other people and the eventual discovery of one person finding out someone is playing them and their subsequent quest to retain control of their own mind. In those tangles of shifting identities, the filmmaker discovers those powerful moments of elevated and literal psychological horror. But as the film moves forward and events unsurprisingly go from bad to worse for our protagonists, POSSESSOR shifts from an interesting psychological tale into a bordering-on-cartoonish brutal fable where even a surprising twist at the film’s end just adds to the ridiculousness of the story’s direction. As his characters are more interesting due to their quirks and unique names (sans Colin of course), the film’s violently tragic journey loses a bit of its punch when its hard to care for most, if not all of the players involved. Like his previous film, Cronenberg crafts a genuinely interesting world here but never quite lets much emotional depth color it a bit more. Intentionally or not, the result on screen feels alien.
Nevertheless, the filmmaker shows a bit more growth as a director, pacing his film relatively well and delivering some genuinely disturbing scenes that explode with bloody carnage, offering some gnarly spills for the gorehounds out there. Indeed, if there was anyone I would trust with delivering the “goods” promised within the idea of corporations using mind control to enact literal (and very, very, very bloody) hostile takeovers, Brandon Cronenberg would be the guy I turn to.