Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Neon releases the film in select theaters on Friday, October 2.
A queasy and intriguing horror-inflected techno-thriller that gets lost somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle between “Mandy,” “Inception,” and “Ghost in the Shell,” Brandon Cronenberg’s “Possessor” is so drunk on its own sick potential that it doesn’t have the time (or the balance) required to realize most of it. On the other hand, 90 minutes of Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbott engaging in ultra-gory psychic warfare over control of the latter’s body is more satisfying than what most of the current Best Picture nominees have to offer, so maybe it’s wise not to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Although set in an alternate 2008 that’s a touch more analog than our own world (a low-key tweak that imagines what the 21st century would look like if we kept the ’90s alive on life support and built the future in Trent Reznor’s image), “Possessor” throbs with recognizably urgent concerns like gender, privacy, and the sins of corporate hegemony. Also: White people hijacking the bodies of black women and using them as patsies for targeted public assassinations — at this rate, I wouldn’t put it past us.
A coldly compelling prologue lays it all on the table. Holly (Gabrielle Graham) sits alone in a musty hotel room and sticks a metal electrode into the top of her skull; her flesh squelches and weeps, lest there was any confusion that Brandon Cronenberg is David’s son. Later, at a Toronto restaurant that cinematographer Karim Hussain and production designer Rupert Lazarus have flexed into a jaundiced orgy of neon lights and aggressive geometric shapes, Holly walks up to an oily VIP of some kind and stabs him in the neck many, many, many more times than is necessary to kill a man his size. Blood splatters all over her blood tracksuit. She then puts the victim’s gun in her mouth, but Holly can’t seem to pull the trigger. When the cops show up a moment later, they’re all too eager to do the honors.
In a hyperbaric chamber across town, a woman named Tasya Vos (Riseborough) gasps awake like she’s been logged out of the Matrix. Another job well done. Don’t expect to learn very much about the mysterious company that runs this mercenary science experiment; Cronenberg sublimates the world-building into such abstraction that “Possessor” often feels more like the pilot for a new television series than it does a self-contained experience (though a little sci-fi jargon goes a long way, and Jennifer Jason Leigh effectively teases our curiosity in her brief role as the middle-manager who who steers Tasya back into her default identity after each gig). All you really need to know is that our hard-edged heroine is on the vanguard of some violent body-hopping business, and that every assignment seems to leave her increasingly unsettled in her own skin. Tasya has to be reminded that she and her husband are separated; she has to rehearse what she’ll say to him when she drops by to visit their young son. Given that Riseborough has become modern cinema’s most eager chameleon, it’s fun (and harrowing) to watch her play someone who’s lost between parts.
Alas, Riseborough won’t be onscreen for long. Tasya — ever the good soldier — is soon assigned another body to inhabit, and there’s no guarantee that she’ll return to her own intact. The target’s name is Colin (Abbott), a smoldering ruin of a man whose girlfriend’s father (Sean Bean) just happens to be the CEO of an Orwellian data-mining conglomerate. Tasya’s client wants the mogul dead so they can assume control of the business, and pinning the murder on his potential son-in-law would be the perfect crime. Our body hacker only has three days before the host’s psyche rejects her, but it won’t be easy to maintain her sense of self while also inhabiting Colin convincingly enough to fool his druggy girlfriend (Tuppence Middleton) into thinking he’s still in there.
“Possessor” is at its best when viscerally peeling a soul out of its body, and Cronenberg is in full command of the material whenever he can visualize the absolute mindfuck of two ghosts competing for control over just one shell. Whatever logistical questions might be raised by the process of implanting Tasya into Colin’s body are snuffed out by the raw spectacle of it all, as Cronenberg stretches the transfiguration into a gruesome symphony of in-camera lighting tricks and nightmarish practical effects courtesy of prosthetics supervisor Daniel Martin. Bodies melt into liquid flesh; a thousand faces yell a single primal scream; the camera zooms through a tunnel of pink organs. It’s the digital experience of our own avatar-ized society made agonizingly physical, and the poetry of seeing that transference in motion is far more expressive than anything “Possessor” is able to do with its halfhearted plot.
Compelling as it can be to watch Abbott let a kernel of female energy disrupt his sharply masculine screen persona with a kernel of female energy, Tasya’s dysphoric presence is too often obscured by a general veil of confusion as “Colin” tries not to get caught. The febrile psychodrama of the whole situation makes for a sharp contrast against the clean lines of the Toronto cityscape, and a thick smog of unease sets in as Tasya’s shifting identity clashes against the workings of an algorithmic world, but Cronenberg seems paralyzed by all of the possibilities he wants to pursue. Over time, “Possessor” begins to lose its own sense of self — it’s strange that such an oblique movie can be so broadly predictable — and builds to a third act that seems to scramble for its own identity as desperately as Tasya ever does.
But if his film struggles to articulate why the stability of being someone is too valuable to exchange for the freedom of being anyone, Cronenberg only gets better and better at illustrating the same point. Are we even ourselves, or is free will just the sales pitch we give ourselves to get out of bed every morning? There are wickedly destabilizing scenes where Abbott and Riseborough’s voices are layered, and others where their bodies are mashed together into a hideous latex chimera with mouths groaning out of its eye sockets. And it goes without saying that a sci-fi movie so obsessed with bodies is naturally horny as hell, as Cronenberg turns sex into an act of willful self-negation. “Possessor” never manages to wrest control of your mind, but it’s unnervingly good at getting under your skin.
“Possessor” premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition.
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