In Possessor, Brandon Cronenberg carries on the family name in a gloriously gory genre piece highlighted by smart design choices and a superb Christopher Abbott performance.
Allow me to take you back to the early 2000s for a moment. In the wake of The Matrix’s success, Hollywood studios dove deep into the well of untapped sci-fi IP and all of a sudden nearly every Philip K. Dick story and Philip K. Dick pretender’s story became a movie. A few were successful (Minority Report), but most were like Imposter, Paycheck, and Next. Dumpy, studio mandated action movies wasting interesting sci-fi concepts on dopey shoot ‘em ups. Possessor feels like what we might have gotten if a young auteur were put in charge of one of these projects.
Brandon Cronenberg’s second feature film proves the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. The son of legendary auteur David Cronenberg, Brandon’s filmmaking has all the swagger of someone who has a dozen movies under his belt. You can feel David’s influence from the stark, shocking violence to the aesthetic sense, but Brandon’s filmmaking feels focused on modern technocratic concerns with a stinging criticism of modern capitalist impulses.
Possessor tells the yarn of Tasya Vos, Andrea Riseborough (Nancy), who quite literally possesses people through a convoluted techno-babble process vividly depicted as a literal deconstruction and reconstruction of the body by Cronenberg. She is, in a classic Dick-esque concept, inhabiting these bodies in order to get close enough to high value targets and brutally assassinate them in an alternative history version of 2008. A sinister corporate middle manager, played ably by Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight), supervises her missions and helps reorient her to the real world upon her return from each mission.
The film’s primary task sees Tasya inhabit the body of Christopher Abbott (James White) in order to get close to his girlfriend’s father, a proto-Big Data overlord played with appropriate prickly menace by Sean Bean (GoldenEye). Much of the conflict arises from the host’s ability to resist the possessory process. It creates an interesting showpiece role for Abbott. Abbott is still perhaps best known for his role as Allison Williams’ boyfriend in the early years of Girls, but I suspect it is only a matter of time before he is recognized for his growing body of brilliant performances. His textured, nuanced work in James White is one of 2015’s best male performances. Here, he again shows superb range. He effectively channels someone else attempting to emulate a toxic bro dude, and wonderfully exudes the internal conflict of a psyche quite literally at war with itself. He is fast becoming one of my favorite actors.
Perhaps the film’s greatest flaw is that Cronenberg has too many ideas he wants to pursue. From attacking capitalist idealism to prodding at questions of gender identity, Cronenberg has a lot he wants to say. The film’s primary plot of assassinations and corporate espionage bleeds away into the psychological identity battle between Risebourough and Abbott. It’s not an unappealing shift, but it is one that necessitates abandoning a number of the film’s early themes and ideas.
The film raises an awful lot of interesting ideas, and brings a tremendous sense of style for something that was clearly made on an extremely limited budget. The action is effectively tense and the gore is at the sort of level that guarantees the film a long cult following. Brandon Cronenberg is a young director to watch.
Possessor premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020, and will be released by Neon this year. Arclight Films is handling the film’s international distribution.
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