A worm-infested apple doesn’t fall far from a rotting tree. In only his second feature film, baby Brandon Cronenberg proves he’s everything his father David was in his heyday: stylish, provocative, and interested in more than the gore and sleazy depravity that often grab headlines, although he’s clearly interested in those as well. Set in an alternate techno-horror 2008 of corporate espionage, where agents like Tasya (Andrea Riseborough) use brain-implant technology to “possess” other human beings for carrying out assassinations, Possessor is possibly the most graphic film made since Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist. Here it’s not so much what happens, but how it happens, how it’s framed on screen via some truly horrific and terrific practical effects.
When we meet Tasya, she’s at the top of her game yet beginning to slip. As Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character puts it, “the older you get, the harder it gets.” The technology is tough on the mind and body and Tasya’s mental strain only intensifies as she takes on a new mission: inhabiting the mind of Colin Tate (a wonderfully tortured Christopher Abbott), a man who happens to be dating the daughter (Tuppence Middleton) of the biggest wig in data mining, a magnificent bastard named John Parse (Sean Bean). The unnamed company Tasya works for wants Parse dead, and so events are set in motion that bring her face to face with an identity crisis of disturbing proportions.
There have been comparisons made to the mind-trip corporate espionage of Inception, but Possessor is not about spy craft nor exhilarating action sequences. This is a severe, macabre, psychedelic thriller built on an obsession with possession, with the viscera of body invasion and the psychological torment and confusion of fighting for control over your mind and body. Tasya is increasingly unable to maintain dominance over whoever she’s inhabiting, incapable of pulling the trigger when it’s time to dispose of the body and return to herself. Cronenberg paints multiple interpretive pictures of what happens when a brain is occupied by another, the dissolution of one identity as it’s supplanted by another, the conscious mind as fluid. The most lucid of images draws on this very concept, with Colin’s mental “body” dissolving into a black abyss like melting wax, to be replaced by Tasya’s body pooling from the ether.
There’s a clear trans/queer reading of Cronenberg’s narrative too, with many scenes echoing the transitioning process. After waking up in Colin’s mind, Tasya inspects the male body in a bathroom mirror, regarding her newfound genitals with quiet acceptance. It’s seemingly the first time she’s inhabited a man and yet her reaction is an utter lack of surprise, as if this is how she’s always seen herself in the mirror. While inside Colin, she seems to revel in the opportunity for sex with his girlfriend, the aforementioned data miner daughter. The scene is both classic Cronenbergian erotica and an expression of repression ceasing. She’s finally able to be herself in the body of this yuppie social climber.
Her identity crisis extends beyond the job. Tasya’s personal time is torn between work and her former life as a wife and mother. She left husband Michael and son Ira some time ago and finds herself pretending to be someone else when it’s time to visit them for a quick hello and goodbye, a schism that becomes a focal point later when Colin tries battling back from the brink of cerebral decimation. As an audience, we’re asked to question the film’s final images, its climactic diaspora of blood and guts and family strife. Was Colin in control, or was Tasya in control more than we thought when the bloodletting began? Was she actually aiding and abetting her mental adversary?
For the squeamish, stay far away. From stabbings keylit for a closeup to the most brainy of gunshots, not to mention the gruesome use of a fire poker, this is scene-for-scene the goriest film of the year. For those who can stomach it, embrace the signaling of a new auteur in independent filmmaking, even if his style occasionally overpowers our will to understand its substance. No matter Brandon’s loftier interests, it’s the evocative, colorful mis-e-scene that sticks with you the most. Try to shake your noggin’ of an image, already seen in the marketing materials, of Abbott donning a warped mask of Riseborough’s face and marvel at how easily you fail. Such is the power of cinema in the hands of a Cronenberg.