POSSESSOR is a fucking great and deeply disturbing near-future-cyberpunkish assassination thriller directed by Brandon Cronenberg. Yeah, when you’re David Cronenberg’s son, seems like it would be good not to direct real grim, trippy movies that are gonna be compared to your genius dad’s early shit. Too much to live up to. It might be easier to just be a rapper named Li’l Decker or something. Like, what if Sofia Coppola had started out making gangster movies? But DJ The Doctor From JASON X here pulls it off. It doesn’t seem to be copying any specific content or style from the elder Cronenberg, but it definitely is a contemporary equivalent to the tone and quality of the old man’s early, crazy shit.
It stars Andrea Riseborough, who I for a second recognized from MANDY but thought – nah, must be somebody else. She plays a pallid and haunted looking lady named Tasya Vos, a fittingly cool name for someone in her line of work. She looks like she’s on her death bed, but it’s part of her job as a strange type of assassin and undercover agent… I would say a futuristic type, but I’m told this takes place in alternate past? I don’t know. But she spends most of her time in a lab with her head plugged into a machine that somehow projects her consciousness into an implant that her colleagues have clandestinely placed inside an unwilling subject. So, while controlling some poor sucker’s body, she murders her target, then turns a gun on “herself,” which returns her to her real body and/or ties up the loose ends of the assassination plot. Kind of like a clumsier, riskier, more evil version of plugging into the Matrix.
In addition to the physical danger she faces in the process of going to murder someone, she’s putting her body through an ordeal it obviously wasn’t designed for. We’re told if she stays in too long she’ll suffer serious brain damage, and there are signs that something is already going on with her.
The joining and separation seems to really mess with her – we see it as melded bodies being physically torn apart. Whether these horrifying images are meant to be what she’s literally experiencing or not, they’re a very visceral expression of how the process must feel. And they’re beautiful. When she transfers bodies we see really cool images like flesh forming as if it’s wax reverse-melting into a human mold. (I must note that it made me think of the opening credit sequence of CYBORG 2, and The Cinema Drunkie on Twitter reminded me that it’s even closer to the one in CHILD’S PLAY 3.)
Sometimes her memories seem to get mixed up with the memories of her hosts. Things are getting messy. And it seems like she’s hiding some of this from her handler, Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh, MIAMI BLUES, eXistenZ), who tries to look out for her and gives her memory tests and stuff. In one of those she looks at a mounted butterfly, which she remembers from childhood. She says that at the time she felt guilty about what she did to the butterfly, and still does. Odd coming from a professional killer of humans. Outside of the job she seems like a simple lady who just wants to be with her husband Michael (Rossif Sutherland, ORPHAN: FIRST KILL) and son Ira (Gage Graham-Arbuthnot). She’s welcome at home, but separated from Michael, the specifics of which she seems to have forgotten, though I’m sure it doesn’t help that she’s so out of sorts from her job that she has to practice her lines before coming home for dinner, like it’s another role she’s playing.
It seems like a miserable life, and there’s no evidence she even gets paid well. But she takes on what promises to be a big assignment, controlling a young man named Colin (Christopher Abbott, SWEET VIRGINIA) whose girlfriend Ava (Tuppence Middleton, JUPITER ASCENDING) is the daughter of a super rich CEO (Sean Bean, also JUPITER ASCENDING). The goal is to take over the company, but maybe her reward is also getting to live with the rich people while stealing their bodies.
There’s a little trace of FACE/OFF here when she’s first living as Colin and Ava is surprised by the amount of affection “he”’s showing her. Being all cuddly, making her worry he’s “gone strange on me.” And I definitely get the impression that Vos enjoys inhabiting a male body and using it to have sex with a woman. Most spy thrillers don’t get to explore that sort of thing.
Colin has a job at the data-mining company courtesy of Ava’s dad, but that turns out to be more of an act of bullying than a favor. Their building is really flashy, with glossy green walls and hip artwork, and he has an office with a huge window overlooking a forest. Just kidding, he works with a bunch of people crammed into a narrow industrial hallway wearing VR goggles that simulate looking at a desk top computer in such an office. His job today is to spy on people through their webcams and make note of what types of blinds or curtains they have in their homes. Vos seems to have been trained for this work, but she hesitates and receives an immediate reprimand from an annoyed overseer in her headset.
It’s a perfect fictional job because I’m really not sure how fictional it is. It doesn’t seem that far off from current reality, partly because the different levels of dehumanization are maddeningly egregious: the invasion of privacy in the name of consumer data, making a person do this thankless work, their company making it clear that they’ll spend their enormous profits on outward opulence but only a simulation of comfort for their workers.
In an odd way POSSESSOR reminds me of something I love about Paul Verhoeven’s satire. It’s a completely different tone, because I’d say there’s no humor here, and arguably no fun. But it depicts an awful near future inhabited by people who are used to how awful it is, and don’t seem to have any problem with it. One character cynically jokes about the invasive webcams, as we do, but there’s nobody rebelling against this world or saying, “This is crazy! We can’t do this!” It’s just life.
It’s very fucked up that Vos’s agency or company or whatever are hired killers, and even worse that they just provide it as a service for corporate espionage. But they do their job professionally and we get involved in the story of them trying to pull it off, because outside of right and wrong it just happens to be compelling. They don’t ever acknowledge anything being wrong with assassinations or the innocent people whose bodies they use as patsies and then terminate.
I suspect it’s intentional that the first body they use (Gabrielle Graham, IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON) is a Black woman who works at a restaurant. Not knowing what was going on I wondered who this interesting character was. It seemed like representation. But no, just a victim who they use and discard. The first of many fucked up things these characters will do without a glimmer of remorse.
I think it’s also necessary that the gore always goes two or three times past the legal limit of acceptability, from the extravagant (eyeballs and teeth being scooped out) to the upsettingly realistic (blood gushing from knife or bullet wounds). Cronenberg gets us involved in the mission by showing us the procedure, including spying on the target to study their way of speaking, and putting us in Vos’s shoes as she does this very scary thing of infiltrating a place she doesn’t belong and spending time with people she will massively betray (or worse).
I think there’s a little temptation to ignore the immorality of it as soon as we see this world of entitled super-rich jerks that Colin lives in. But then we see his girlfriend and even his girlfriend’s-friend-who-he’s-cheating-with (Kaniehtiio Horn, MOHAWK) being caring to him, and you just can’t help but feel bad that they’re mixed up in this. The dad is such a piece of shit though that there’s a thrill to knowing Vos-as-Colin gets to – in fact, is required to – tell him off and get into a big fight with him. And to know that this fucking asshole has a comeuppance headed his way. So then when it happens and the level of violence plows way past over-the-line, runs over overboard, and pushes this-is-just-too-much over into a puddle, it really drives home that this is not fun. This is bad.
The whole cast is great, and though we’re often focused on the continually-impressive Riseborough, alot of the lifting goes to Abbott as Vos-as-Colin. He’s playing a woman pretending to be a man whose world or life she doesn’t know much about, who’s also going through some physical and mental struggles. And then he gets to play the actual Colin somewhat regaining control of his body, trying to figure out what’s happened/happening and what he can possibly do about it. A very unusual revenge scenario.
Also I should note that he really reminded me of Paul Rudd. This is like the dark and serious Rudd on an alternate timeline where his whole career came out of HALLOWEEN: THE CURSE OF MICHAEL MEYERS and now he’s finally getting a shot at a really good one.
I have to emphasize that POSSESSOR is high in Fucked Up content. The version you want to see (currently on Hulu) is unrated, which is required to get a couple boners in there, but also there are several incidents of violence that individually would set the R-rating on fire and push it over a ledge. It’s also obviously pretty weird and out-there, though in my opinion not in the disorienting way of many also-good movies (some of them by this director’s old man) that devolve into incoherent surrealism as they go along. I think this is able to contain that feeling of chaos and the unknown within the body of a strong, serious thriller. So it’s not for everybody, it’s very much not for some people, but for what it is it’s pretty much a perfect movie, I think.
Now bring on POSSESSOR COP!