by Ken Bakely
At the start of Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor, we are shown the procedure of an underground company that carries out high-tech murders of wealthy businesspeople. It’s supposed to work like this: a contract killer virtually infiltrates and occupies the body of an unwitting host. The possessor overrides the host’s consciousness and fully controls the movements and actions of this individual. Then, acting through their host, they kill the target and then subsequently kill the host body; it appears as a murder-suicide to eyewitnesses. The job is finished when the technicians running the possession end the infiltration and yank the assassin back into their own reality. The first scene sees veteran assassin Tasya (Andrea Riseborough) occupy the body of Holly (Gabrielle Graham), a young woman. It’s startling to watch, as careful preparation leads to an extravagant shower of violence. The job ends with complications – Tasya struggles to maintain control through the end of the mission – but it eventually ends with Tasya out, and both Holly and the target dead. This sequence sets the stage for the film to follow. It’s stylishly shot, compellingly acted, and when push comes to shove, it’s pulverizingly, unrelentingly intense. It forefronts the film’s underlying ideas of autonomy and consciousness under a frightening umbrella of money, authoritarianism, and technology. And in the context of the plot, Tasya’s momentary struggle to retain autonomy throughout the mission shows cracks in the system that will eventually wreak even greater havoc.
Said complications arise when Tasya is assigned to infiltrate the mind and body of Colin (Christopher Abbott), and kill his girlfriend’s father, industrialist John Parse (Sean Bean). But Colin, who is employed by Parse’s data mining enterprise, is all too aware of such invasive technologies, and his consciousness appears to be fighting back against Tasya, leading to a virtual battle for one personal being. Possessor explores this plot with all the messy complications this implies. Cronenberg’s approach gradually moves from the quiet ambiguities of Tasya’s initial infiltration to the jarring and disturbing events which come when she and Colin are fully engaged in their invisible combat, in which no one exercises full control, and increasingly drastic actions occur. Though we are fully immersed in the movie’s confrontational action, there is a deliberate mystery to exactly who is doing what, and the film is all the more stronger because of it. Abbott’s brilliant performance combines mental anguish with physical discomfort, playing against Riseborough’s strong, though necessarily more internalized, work. Yet as time goes on, even the duality between their performances becomes more of a complex question: the film goes to great lengths to emphasize the grotesqueries of two souls crowded into one body. Each is diametrically opposed to the other’s presence, destined to exercise their anger through extreme brutality. Karim Hussain’s moody cinematography – drenched in deep, dark tones of blues, greens, and reds – emphasizes the dour horror of the proceedings, and Matthew Hannam’s jazzy editing strategically builds the disorientation.
Possessor is undeniably maximalist, with its punchy aesthetic, gallons of blood, and hard-boiled commentary combining together to create as unrelenting a film as possible. Indeed, it pushes so persistently, and with such force, that it sometimes feels like there’s too much going on. There’s always something new that pushes our attention in another simultaneous direction, and maybe it spreads itself a little too thin in its quest to fire at full blast. But it’s also equally apparent that the movie has a conscious, uncompromised vision. Cronenberg has an unquestionable sense of command over the chaos, and there’s a method to the madness. Through all that happens, we’re always returned to the script’s central themes of control, the individual, and capital, as well as the Sisyphean quest to perfectly balance all three. By the time the film reaches its expectably grim and graphic finale, we arrive at each development with an ever-growing dread. The film’s message is clear: everything and everyone can be compromised. This is a riveting movie that operates with impeccable speed and extraordinary energy. It roars and screams, but never without direction. Even when it seems to operate a little too chaotically for its own good, it’s always absorbing and arresting to experience.