Almost from the get-go, Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor promises a rather intense, visceral, often-times uncomfortable work of cinematic eye-candy. Think sentient fruit gushers, emphasis on the gushing. If the last name sounds familiar, it ought to be. Being the son to a filmmaker who’s challenged genres and filmmaking systems over the years between Videodrome, The Fly, and A History of Violence, it’s only inevitable he may follow in those notable footsteps and harbor the same level of wild imagination. Consider yourself warned, as the family name poses strength and dread here, most consistently.
Whether one’s experiencing this decadent piece of terror at home or in a theater (for Seattleites, it’s obviously the former) and also a seasoned horror fan, Possessor will cause some mild cringe that will be far from expected. It focuses on the hesitant Tasya de Vos (Andrea Riseborough), a veteran mind control agent whose conscience has distracted her on multiple occasions. Namely with flashbacks of her ex-husband (Rossif Sutherland) and young son (Gage Graham-Arbuthnot). Her handler, Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) certainly has her work cut out for her, as she oversees Tasya on a major job. Consuming the mind of a noble assassin (Gabrielle Graham) by way of a cranial needle, a symbiotic relationship forms between the controller and the host, with mixed results. Essentially, after the target’s out of the equation, the order to be pulled out must be given, then a trigger pulled to sever that connection. Fail to do that, or not lose focus, and the job botches itself.
Vos must carry that sense of isolation in her back pocket when she learns of her next target. Girder’s superior is looking to have data-mining mogul John Parse (Sean Bean) eliminated to settle a debt. Vos needs to prove herself as Girder’s “star performer” and professionally handle this gig. Possessing the mind of Parse’s daughter’s fiancé Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), she considers the work easy enough. At least until his consciousness catches on. Thankfully it’s that instead of his bride-to-be Ava (Tuppence Middleton), that middle ground between target and marksman.
The young Cronenberg rises to a great challenge, responding back after his long-ago debut, 2012’s Antiviral, upping his own game from start to finish. Yes, there are many tense chess move throughout, opening the door to a myriad knife play and shoving about. All as a tightly wound coil builds, awash in multiple shades of red, and the occasional blood-tinted orange. Props to PD Rupert Lazarus (Mary Goes Round) for not making any of that appear cheesy for one moment. It only accentuates Cronenberg’s vision into mild fruition. As does editor Matthew Hannam’s (Swiss Army Man) methods of piecing together either cut of suspense like a rigid quilt, and Jim Williams’ (Raw) quietly droning yet sharp-piercing musical motifs.
As the technical merits excel without question, Cronenberg can then focus on nearly lyrical swipes of slick action and gripping (yet not completely grotesque) horror. The violent nature of this presumable director’s cut is nothing short of palpable. I was easily split between moments of effortless cringe and tame introspection. Just like his father, Brandon does not take the effort or time on helpless violent tendencies, unless there is a moral element playing alongside. Here in Possessor, there is the idea of one’s own concept of privacy. Something that would be clearly violated while in a state of absent-mindedness, where we lose control, where we lose our humanity, and the ability to see what makes a life worth not eliminating, whether the antagonistic target, or themselves, or the close family we sometimes must distance from.
For Riseborough, who delivers one of her most clarified performances to date, she must work through all of these, while pondering whether she can really go home again. Abbott is capable enough to handle the physical end of this conflict, dark consequences, and panic-inducing flashbacks notwithstanding. Bean’s as much a reliable villain, as is Leigh in the ominous mother role. If there were one thing that could have been better refined in Cronenberg’s storytelling, it would be to let the characters breathe just a bit more. We do not get near enough time to see Girder, Parse, or his daughter in action as Tate is motioning through his work, ultimately allowing the shock aspect to tell the rest of the story.
As such, Possessor will not be an easy watch for most, considering how deep it cuts for a horror work. Brandon Cronenberg is certainly a talent on the rise, not just because of the name and its lineage. His voice as a filmmaker is no stranger to influence but is no less distinct in his own way. What he manages to do here effectively builds on the unnerving, the unsettling, and the not-quite-ideal side of undercover work. Like his father in the past, there’s showmanship to be discovered at every avenue, nearly every shot. Perhaps to the point at which the viewer may be easily exhausted by the end through all that discomfort, and all that gripping tension. Staying close to its own moral ramifications is what this gory art-house centerpiece likely does best, pointing out where humanity falters under pressure. When it comes to very human stories, the apple does not fall too far from that very high tree. (A-; ⅘ Horns Up!)
Possessor is playing in select theaters and VOD this weekend; film not rated, but it does skate across very hard-R territory with violence and language aplenty; not for the littluns; 104 minutes.