The ultimate accolade for a creator (besides earning vast tranches of money) is to get your own adjective: Kafkaesque, Dickensian etc. Not only is it inarguable proof that you’ve ‘made it’ (see again: vast tranches of money) but proof that your artistic vision is so acute that anyone else attempting something similar is going to effectively be labelled an imitator. As a result, Brandon Cronenberg clearly had a choice when he chose to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a director: either carve out a body of work that pointedly steers away from the adjective ‘Cronenbergian’ (say a string of frothy romantic comedies blissfully free of visceral body horror) or try to beat the old man at his own game. It’s pretty clear that for his second feature Brandon Cronenberg has chosen door number 2.
Possessor sets out its stall from the first scene: a young woman of colour calmly takes what looks like a headphone jack and skewers it into a fleshy port in her scalp that seems to be the result of an adolescent flirtation with trepanation. The jack attaches to a bulky control nodule studded in dials which she fiddles with, each adjustment seemingly responsible for a corresponding change in her facial expression: wreathed in smiles to desolate crying jag at the flick of a switch. Finishing up, she pours herself into a sleek blue dress and joins a gaggle of identically clad young women in the antechamber of a corporate private members club that looks like it has recently opened up a new outlet in Hell. Shimmying through the crowds she snatches up a steak knife and begins to frenziedly fillet a nearby party guest, her attempt at beating Brutus and Cassius’s land stab record engendering surrealistic geysers of blood. After what feels like an eternity, she pulls a gun from her purse to threaten the encroaching police who gun her down in the requisite hail of bullets. Brutal murderer we hardly knew ye.
Only, perhaps we didn’t know her at all. After this dreamlike opening it becomes apparent that that woman who repurposed the unfortunate party guest as an impromptu fountain was being literally puppeteered by a foreign intelligence. Our main character and brutal murderer is this intelligence: Tasya Voss (Andrea Riseborough) an assassin by proxy for a shadowy corporation who have developed a method for the perfect murder. Thanks to a sophisticated, if visually terrifying, machine; they can surgically implant Tanya’s consciousness into unwilling strangers: leaving her free to use that poor person’s body like a meat puppet. As a result, the ongoing assassinations all appear to be random unrelated crimes of passion. Considering that the only way for Tanya to return to her own body is for her possessed victim to die, there’s no danger of her subsequently discarded flesh tuxedo spilling the beans after she’s done with them.
Her coldly corporate handler (Jennifer Jason Leigh who oozes oblique threats into the most banal affirmations) tells her she’s the best at what she does, but Tasya seems to be in the process of coming unglued. Before dinner with her estranged husband and son she has to rehearse small talk to herself like an actor afraid she’ll flub her lines. She’s become so adroit at becoming other people that her own self is threatening to melt away. A more worrying sign is the flashes of violence that flicker through her mind like a growing storm, everything seems to suggest that she’s starting to have trouble leaving her work at the office. Still when she’s asked by her handler if she’s ok, she lies so she can get right back to work: sliding into the flesh suit of Colin (Christopher Abbott, chillingly acting for two), prospective son in law of a tech billionaire whose datamining company Tasya’s employers would very much like to own themselves. Tasya might not be on top of her game, but what’s the worst that could happen?
The entire atmosphere of Possessor is alienating and uncomfortable, the very concept is violating on the most existential level and Cronenberg weaponises it. Whilst the idea of an assassin killing by proxy could easily be adapted for action film thrills, the tone is instead a dreamy horror shot through with sequences of truly shocking violence. This nightmarish tone is fuelled by the sheer visual chutzpah of the film, which pushes the pulsing neon palate of Nicholas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives) into active surrealism. Possessor looks fantastic, ethereal yet visceral and it moves at such a pace you feel as trapped by it as one of Tasya’s puppets.
Whilst for obvious reasons you can’t exactly call Possessor realistic (let’s hope so anyway) Cronenberg is toying with real sociological issues beneath the gore and madness. When Tasya takes control of Colin she goes to work in his entry level position at the data mining company, peering through the hijacked feeds of laptop webcams in order to catalogue visible possessions for more effective targeted advertisements. All the while the blithely oblivious citizens engage in everything from private conversations to full on physical intimacy. Possessor posits the disturbing parallel of stealing our own flesh and blood to the digital autonomy we’ve already sacrificed the increasingly rapacious hunger of data crazed corporations. However, Cronenberg is too interested in his gory thrills to allow Possessor to fully explore the implications of its premise, which leads to a bit of a tug of war tonally between the film’s social ideas and its desire to show you what a poker does to someone’s bridgework. As a result, perhaps Possessor is a bit more style than substance, but its style is chilling, compulsive and just plain great. I’d go as far as to call it Cronenbergian.