Like dad David Cronenberg, Brandon Cronenberg has a unique way of testing the boundaries of comfort and exploring the human mind and body in squeamish fashion. In his feature debut, Antiviral, Brandon Cronenberg declared himself a visionary director, one forging new ground in the genre space his father long ago abandoned. While his latest, Possessor, might belong in the same conversation as eXistenZ, Cronenberg once again proves himself as one to watch with a heady sci-fi film that brings serious levels of violence and gore.
Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is an agent working for a secretive corporation that uses brain implant technology to inhabit other people’s bodies and puppeteer them to commit assassinations at the company’s direction. When the deed is done, the agent signals the corporation to remove her consciousness from her host body just before she forces her host to self-terminate. Tasya is so effective at her job that she’s the corporation’s best agent, and a favorite of her boss, Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The more time she spends in other bodies, though, the more she seems to lose control over her mind. Repressed memories bubble to the surface, others seem to fade entirely, and identity becomes trickier to maintain. When she inhabits the body of her latest host, Colin (Christopher Abbot), his soul isn’t quite as willing to let her take over thanks to her weakened mental state, and the war over control threatens to obliterate them both.
From the opening scene that demonstrates the body-hopping assassination process, Cronenberg declares that he’s not messing around. A woman (Gabrielle Graham) sticks a metal rod electrode into her scalp, in graphic fashion. The wound squishes, and blood gushes forth. After a beat, she proceeds about her typical workday until she finds her target, and then slaughters him in a sadistically violent way. No deaths in this movie henceforth will be gentle; visceral horror is the brand of this complex and heady sci-fi thriller.
Riseborough has the unenviable task of tackling a character who, when we meet her, exists in a state of confusion. Tasya’s fight for her identity, and holding tight to it as it’s slipping away, is the root of her journey. On the one hand, that makes her inaccessible to get to know who she is, but on the other, that’s the entire intriguing point. Abbott has the most exciting role to play as a man inhabited by two very different minds in Inception-level consciousness. Once Tasya enters Colin’s mind, Abbott primarily plays both characters. At first, it’s as though Colin is grappling with a new sickness or the dawning realization that something is seriously amiss with his body. As it progresses, he’s playing a much more in control Tasya, and it’s mind-bending.
Matching the glorious gore and insanely intricate character/actor work is the slick production. Cold, slick sci-fi meets a Grand Guignol aesthetic, and it’s stunning. Gorgeous cinematography by Karim Hussain (Antiviral, We Are Still Here), fantastic practical effects by special effects designer Dan Martin (Color Out of Space), and Rupert Lazarus’s (eXistenZ) production design all contribute to an unsettling spectacle where warm flesh literally melts and sterile technology reigns supreme.
One of the toughest elements to pull off in a genre film is the grand finale, and Possessor more than delivers. Even if the internal battle for body supremacy and all the cerebral questions it raises gets confusing, it all culminates in one jaw-dropping conclusion that ensures the film gets under your skin.
Cronenberg’s sophomore effort is ambitious as hell, and it may not go quite as deep as the premise suggests. That the two leads are people we never get to know before we’re thrust into their struggles with self-identity, or that they’re not exactly great people to begin with, means that it might be tough for some to find a rooting interest. But for those that love cerebral thrillers with practical gore, wrapped up in a stimulating sci-fi package, this is a must. Possessor will leave you stoked for Cronenberg’s next effort.
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