Director Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor shares certain thematic similarities with the films of his famous and influential father David, but its tone and pacing owe more to glacial, drone-y 2010s sci-fi like Panos Cosmatos’s Beyond the Black Rainbow and Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. There is, appropriately enough, a meticulous remove to Possessor’s story of a woman (Andrea Riseborough) who can remotely pilot the bodies of other people in order to employ them as assassins, a sense of clinical distance running from Riseborough’s ghostly pallor to the scene in which she stands practicing intonations so she’ll sound more human when she sees her family. The same spirit animates the film’s sequences of body horror, ingenious mixed digital and practical effects ranging from simple smearing of the lens to elaborate sequences of limbs and features taking shape from nothing. One moment of science fiction violence in particular strikes an almost wholly unique chord, sliding a needle easily through the heart of the film’s structure.
Possessor is deeply rooted in ideas of gender performance and social gender roles, toying with transsexual images such as Riseborough’s Tasya Vos seeing herself with an erect cock while sleeping with a possessed subject’s girlfriend. There’s a conversation to be had about the ways in which charged images like that are used in film, but Possessor never feels salacious or mean-spirited in its gender politics. Its profoundly ugly and uncomfortable opening, in which Vos uses a black woman’s body to commit a vicious murder before abandoning said body to be gunned down by police, establishes that its concerns of character are purely selfish, disconnected from any possible sweeping moral statements. That myopic focus helps to spur immersion in the film’s drone warfare-like sequences of violence, imprecise and callous, serving first and foremost to further sever Vos from her sense of self.
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With its small cast and narrow focus Possessor feels engrossingly enigmatic, a minute visible extrusion of some far larger and more frightening world. It scrutinizes each face and body with deliberate care, focusing for long stretches on the flutter of sunken eyelids, the ripple of skin under an air dryer. Flesh in motion, machines of blood and bone folding into and out of one another until hallucinatory visions replace these studied minutiae. As Vos’s vessel Colin Tate, actor Michael Abbott gives the film’s rawest and most nakedly human performance, one that so effectively blurs the two characters’ emotions and motivations that the tension of not knowing which of them desires what persists even through climatic explosions of violence driven by their conflict. It’s superbly anxiety-inducing filmmaking.
If the film’s story-within-a-story feels a little underwritten, Cronenberg’s strict control of tone and pacing prevent even the occasional sketchy stretch of script from bogging anything down. Instead, like Tate at his job in his father-in-law-to-be’s data mine, we are presented with mental detritus and asked to parse it for meaning, sifting through the banal emotional effluvium of petty socialites and high-tech killers as the act of psychic rape at the film’s core grows steadily harder to ignore, to shrug off as a convention of the genre. Look closely, Possessor says. Watch. Listen. It offers neither pat judgments nor easy answers to the things it sets before its audience.