Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor is the story of an agent working for a deeply secretive organization that uses brain-implant technology to control other people’s bodies, giving them the power to commit assassinations for wealthy clients and escape without any consequences. This set up is quickly established before jumping into the main narrative where agent Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is implanted into the mind of Colin (Christopher Abbott), with the mission to kill his girlfriend and her father and give her bosses control of the major company they own. As you would expect, not all goes to plan.
Brandon Cronenberg’s father, David, has made a career out of expressing a singular vision in his films with no hesitation and a willingness to push boundaries. In David’s earlier years he became known as one of the most daring genre filmmakers in the industry, and specifically one of the defining directors in the body horror genre; in many ways he’s responsible for the current state of that genre and its reputation. So even though it may seem like a natural move for Brandon Cronenberg to step straight into the world his father defined, it is a very bold one.
Not one to want to be in his father’s shadow though, Brandon immediately came out of the traps firing with his debut feature Anti-Viral (2012), which despite receiving mixed reviews could not be accused of playing things safe. Now with Possessor he takes it even further as he tells a story packed full of violence, sex, voyeurism, and the desperate search for control, both of your own mind and over the lives of others. It is part sci-fi and part psychological thriller, but also quickly develops into a body horror with two people fighting with each other for control of their minds and bodies to horrifying visual results.
This film is very specifically lit, with bright colours dominating the screen in very visceral and standout moments, but it is very clear that this is not just there as a visual flourish. Almost the entirety of scenes with Tasya Vos see her lit with a red glow, often covered in or fascinated by blood. This is no accident, as it is well established that red often symbolises anger, violence and danger, all of which are feelings that seem to be dominating Vos’s damaged psyche due to her field of work. Early on Vos has passionless sex with her husband, where all she can do is think about the violent murder that she just committed in the body of someone else, as if she is detached from her own consciousness and the only thrill that she can get is the violence she enacts.
However, upon first meeting Colin, he is shot with much more calming and neutral colours: light blues and whites. This all changes when Vos gets inside his head, and Cronenberg then sets up a sex scene as the perfect visual pointer for the audience that Vos’s danger and anger is taking over him too. In a room lit initially with calming neon blue lights representing loyalty, tranquillity, and safety, Colin (now controlled by Vos) and his girlfriend Ava (Tuppence Middleton) are making love. However, as they continue, flashes of red light the screen, and Vos’s mental images of her murders are leaking into his head, causing him to become increasingly and unusually aggressive. Ava is rich, powerful, and is the reason Colin has his job, she always has control over him. As they have sex, she starts off on top of him, with her hands around his neck, but as Vos’s mind begins to seep in, Colin changes, he takes control and gets on top of her, his hands around Ava’s neck as the sex grows even more passionate and he wins the fight for control. The blue light fades into the red as we sense the danger to come.
As for the performances, the movie is very much carried on the back of Christopher Abbott, the rapidly rising talent who is taking the independent film world by storm. He is handsome, muscular and charismatic, so you would immediately expect him to be a mainstream star tackling action films and superhero blockbusters, but instead Abbott continues to reinvent himself as a character actor in challenging and risky indie films. Here in Possessor, he has to deliver a wide range of emotions on the flip of a coin, as his character’s mind fractures and world falls apart, and Abbott sells every moment of it. He should be firmly near the top of people’s ‘best Chris’ lists from now on.
Andrea Riseborough’s character is in many ways a chameleon, she observes from afar and then slides in, assuming the body and the life of these people without raising suspicion, and that is what makes her so good at her job. The same could be said though of Riseborough herself, as she has an almost chameleonic ability to disappear into roles completely, and she does exactly that here. The only disappointment is that due to the very concept of the story, she has little screen time after the first act of the film, but her presence is very much felt throughout.
Without going any further into plot points or spoiler territory, it is impressive how the film manages to maintain its momentum and narrative drive throughout its near two-hour runtime, and despite being a high concept film, it manages to deliver a fulfilling and truly shocking finale that leaves you with your mouth wide open as the credits roll.
There will definitely be some people who strongly dislike this film, as it is packed full of really violent gore and features plenty of full-frontal nudity (Twitter may go crazy when it finds out the internet’s new favourite Chris ‘hangs dong’). It is very much a genre piece and not a sweeping character drama that aims to have a crowd-pleasing ending that will send you away on a high, so it is destined to be divisive. But Brandon Cronenberg, better than most due to his father’s past experiences, knows exactly how to satisfy the specific fans of this genre and to create something very singular. Possessor is very much that, a singular blood-soaked nightmare with stunning performances and visuals that won’t leave your mind for days after watching.