By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Christopher Abbott, Andrea Riseborough and Jennifer Jason Leigh
Written and directed by Brandon Cronenberg
With Brandon Cronenberg now on his second feature after 2013’s ANTIVIRAL, it seems unfair to still be reviewing his work in terms of his celebrated father David, but the opening minutes of POSSESSOR show him to be fully in command of comparable ideas. The first scene literally merges science with the cerebral/visceral, followed by the camera gliding over unusual architecture and continuing into one of the most horrifically bloody setpieces in any recent film. If the apple hasn’t rolled too far from the tree at this point, it is also germinating intriguing and original seeds of its own.
Before we even get to the movie proper, POSSESSOR (which has been advertised with UNCUT as its subtitle) opens by informing us, “The following film has not been modified from its original version.” Since graphic genre pictures are released uncensored and unrated on a regular basis these days, the intent is clearly to set up expectations for a gruesomely gory experience, and POSSESSOR has a few more moments after that initial shocker in which makeup effects creator Dan Martin (COLOR OUT OF SPACE, HIGH-RISE) goes all out with some truly hideous prosthetic work. Yet these are largely punctuation (albeit exclamation marks that stick in your head) in Cronenberg’s study of the malleability of identity, as expressed through the dirty job performed by Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough).
Tasya is employed by Xtermination, a firm that takes industrial assassination to a new level: Through scientific means, the hitperson enters the psyche of someone close to the target, who takes out the victim and then shoots him- or herself, leaving no clue about who was actually responsible. Needless to say, this can take quite a toll on the possessor, and Tasya has separated from her husband Michael (Rossif Sutherland) and son Ira (Gage Graham-Arbuthnot)–though she doesn’t remember that when she emerges from a job and is tested on her memory by her supervisor Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh, whose casting seems an intentional callback to David Cronenberg’s similarly themed EXISTENZ). Tasya’s work is overtaking her mind and body, as evocatively expressed when a projected slide of one of her crime scenes covers her in her victim’s blood.
The mission that POSSESSOR is mostly concerned with has her inhabiting Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), who himself makes a living infiltrating the lives of others, peeking at them through their webcams (but for the most banal reasons: to study the décor of their homes). Colin is dating Ava Parse (Tuppence Middleton), daughter of company topper and Tasya’s target John Parse (Sean Bean), who disapproves of and condescends to his daughter’s beau. There’s a fascination to the way POSSESSOR presents Tasya studying Colin as she prepares to become him, and then the way Abbott plays his role with another psyche directing his actions. This becomes particularly tricky when Colin gets intimate with Ava, and Abbott is just as skilled as suggesting the presence of another within Colin as Riseborough is at portraying the ways Tasya is losing her soul to the process.
Shot in somber tones by Karim Hussain with a low-key, insinuating score to match by Jim Williams, POSSESSOR eschews its showy espionage-thriller possibilities to be a close-held character drama for the most part, shot through with surreal inserts that emphasize Tasya’s dislocation and the battle of self going on within the “possessed” Colin. Rupert Lazarus’ just-a-couple-of-minutes-into-the-future production design is a major asset to Cronenberg’s grounding of the material in this way, and even the most drawn-out, explicit, sadistic scene expresses the inner conflict at the film’s center. (SPOILER ALERT: Colin subjects John to excruciating, bloody torture that suggests it is he himself, and not Tasya, guiding his actions at that point.) If the basic story POSSESSOR tells is not quite as compelling as the environment and situation in which it takes place, the movie nonetheless demonstrates Cronenberg as a filmmaker skilled at creating immersive worlds and populating them with galvanizing sights and characters.