Straddling the lines between science fiction and grotesque body horror, Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor conquers genre boundaries as viciously as some of his onscreen violence. The film approaches issues of surveillance and identity to mind-bending effect, morphing into a grim psychedelic crime story that presents our minds as hacked by shadowy corporations. Andrea Riseborough stars as Tasya Vos, an experienced agent for a company with the technology to inhabit the brains of their marks and carry out assassinations in plain sight. But the business of inhabiting another person’s mind is having disorienting effects on Vos, blurring her own consciousness as she takes on her next assignment. But in the hands of Cronenberg, Possessor is as much of a head fuck for the audience as it is for his fractious protagonist.
Cronenberg packs Possessor with much to admire, not least of which is the trippy ways he manages to elicit genuine shock at the film’s brutality and audacious plotting. His concept is anything but simple, allowing the film and its ideas to become increasingly abstract as it reaches its conclusion. Its concerns are both biological and technological, equating the gruesome process of Vos’ company’s literal brain hacking with a more covert one happening in our digital age. The film is about what becomes of our identity when technology allows our psyche to be invaded by unseen corporate forces, and it takes it to grim and gory ideological extremes. Its opening title card about its uncut nature doesn’t deceive – it’s one of the bloodiest films in recent memory.
But the film’s thoughtfulness in its thesis doesn’t always replicate in the execution of its world. Often the film is oozing with so many ideas that it struggles to expound them as quickly as it vomits them, Possessor begs for more specificity about how this company functions and who works for them; we’re asked to buy their main objective, but everything that surrounds it is frustratingly unclarified. Similarly, Vos is plagued by vague marital issues sourced from her commitment to her job, but such cliches don’t do much to reveal much about her as a character. It makes for a film that comments aggressively in the grand sense about corporate influence over our perception of reality and the self, but struggles to produce tangible details to complete its metaphors.
Most specific is Vos’ next mark Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), the boyfriend of the daughter of a research surveillance organization. Vos is charged to kill both the daughter Ava (Tuppence Middleton) and the father head John Parse (Sean Bean), so that their client can take the business and its billions. But Tate has some secrets in his own closet for Vos to navigate, making the victim of this infiltration a more complex character to discover when it feels like it should be the other way around.
The film’s greatest thrills come as Tate and Vos’ consciousness begin to blur together, making for a mental tug-of-war between the protagonists and a guessing game for the audience as to who is in control of Tate’s body in the moment. Abbott and Riseborough are ingeniously matched, two boldly convicted performers working in a haunted tandem; it’s a cosmic duet within Cronenberg’s horror operetta. As Vos is still implanted in his brain, Tate begins to seize control after the execution gets botched. Then Possessor rapidly becomes a swan dive down a conceptual rabbit hole filled with wild imagery and pitch black pathology; it’s all-consuming cinema, if frequently needlessly confusing. But what Cronenberg doesn’t keep obscured in this demonic genre bender makes for a thrilling experience that offers something uncommon of late: authentic shock value.