2020 | R | starring Andrea Risenborough, Christopher Abbott, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sean Bean| written & directed by Brandon Chronenberg | 1 hr 43 mins |
When the offspring of a famous filmmaker goes into the business they usually try to distance themselves from the elder’s shadow as much as possible and establish something different, sometimes for different’s sake. Brandon Cronenberg has embraced the phrase “Chronenbergian” as a duty. He is very much the heir to his father but with a hip, modern edge. What David Chronenberg satirized with STDs and VCRs, Brandon is dabbling in with viruses and AI. His first film, the celebrity culture germ satire Antiviral, was a flawed, but a effective opening salvo of what to expect. Possessor is just as much the squirm-inducing, sci-fi techno-horror as you might expect, but with Cronenberg maintaining a more controlled hand on the throttle here. He pushes, prods, pulls back and shocks in a very deliberate and satisfying film here.
Tasya Vos (Andrea Risenborough, Mandy) is an elite assassin in a secret organization that uses neural implantation technology to hijack the minds of those close to their contract targets and execute the hit without any accountability. Friends, family and especially hookers around the wealthy and powerful get puppeteered by the group and Vos’ handler (Jennifer Jason Leigh). But Vos has developed a case of the suicide yips, unable to finish off herself and the puppet and remains trapped in the consciousness of her latest hijack – the future son in law Collin, (Christopher Abbott, The Sinner) of their target (Sean Bean).
The final product here is something like what Alex Garland might make if he were an Italian Giallo director. It’s an intriguing sci-fi premise with an unblinkingly gory execution. Possessor has the kind of fierce violence that fell out of studio fashion years ago. The film has a 70s era knife-going-in level of blood-letting that would seem pornographic if the rest of the film wasn’t such an artful, simmering, mood piece. Cronenberg executes the assassination set pieces with both pure cinema and realistic desperation, people fight back, get hacked to bits and sputter across the ground. On the other hand he’s fusing the film to Vos’ story, one that slowly descends into a nightmarish hell. Well, nightmare to be simple, but a haze of losing herself to her host’s life and her own furious self-loathing to be more precise.
Chronenberg doesn’t make things easy and much of the film’s brutal 3rd act is open to some interpretation. How much is Vos in control, how much as Collin regained control and how much are both using each other to get what they want? Possessor delivers. It’s a head-trip of a film, meticulously crafted and executed, shocking and riveting. The script is sharp and efficient, giving us enough details to make the story work, to see how an assassin would use this technology, but not so much that it gets bogged down in the vastness of the possible world building. Several movies with these novel high-concept sci-fi premises feel like a Black Mirror episode padded out beyond it’s one-note premise, but Possessor mines the idea itself and it’s affect on it’s characters. Bold, uncompromising, niche audience filmmaking, Chronenberg has upped his game big time with Possessor. One of the must-see movies of 2020.