'Possessor': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
The wormy, unsettling apple falls close to the tree.

Brandon Cronenberg, son of David, imagines assassins using a mind-control device with scary side effects.

One worries about hurting the feelings of a budding artist, when complimenting his new work, by saying that it could almost pass for a hitherto unknown entry in his father's filmography. But Brandon Cronenberg certainly knew what he was getting into with his second feature Possessor, a psychological horror film involving body-penetrating mind-control devices, deliberately provocative gore and scientific tools that, like those horrible specula and pincers in Dead Ringers, enable violence without sacrificing a sheen of haute-design luxury. Hell, David Cronenberg's son even cast Jennifer Jason Leigh, driving home his film's echoes of Dad's eXistenZ. But this sleekly executed work is of its time, exhibiting the chilly aesthetic and psychotropic overlay seen in some of the best indie sci-fi/horror films of recent years. (Many of which also owe debts to the elder Cronenberg.) With sympatico lead performances from up-and-comers Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbott, the film should carry its director much farther than his 2012 debut Antiviral did.

Leigh plays Girder, the pioneer of a system that allows one person to enter another's mind from a distance, shoving the host body's actual self into some dark corner while the intruder takes the wheel. (Don't worry, gore-hounds: Before this can happen, some drilling into the host's cranium is required.) She has built a lucrative murder-for-hire business with the tech, hijacking unsuspecting people to use as assassins, then killing them when the deed is done.

But the remote-control process is taxing. Growing too old for its demands, Girder is grooming Tasya Vos (Riseborough) as her replacement. Tasya's an excellent performer, so into her work that she has become estranged from her husband and son (Rossif Sutherland and Gage Graham-Arbuthnot, respectively), who of course don't know what she does for a living. But on her last job, she ditched the gun she was supposed to use, instead stabbing her victim over and over and over with a steak knife. Are cracks appearing in her psyche?

For her next assignment, she'll have three days inside her target before damage is done to the brain in her own body. She's inhabiting Abbott's Colin, a man engaged to the daughter (Tuppence Middleton) of an extremely rich businessman (Sean Bean). Tasya is to kill all three, so control of the family's company goes to a third member. Things do not go smoothly.

Though it refers glancingly to the oddness of a woman suddenly inhabiting a man's body, Possessor isn't interested in amusing viewers, as movies like Face/Off and Jumanji have done, by having actors we know play off the idea that, under the skin, they're actually another actor we know. (Which is appropriate, since neither Riseborough nor Abbott is busy developing the kind of recognizable screen persona Nicolas Cage and Dwayne Johnson employ.) Instead, Abbott plays the newly inhabited Colin as someone experiencing an odd sickness.

Colin's job involves sitting all day in virtual-reality gear, apparently spying on people's webcam feeds for market-research purposes. Which means a day at work is a doubly disembodied experience for Tasya, whose own body is lying on an operating table, her head covered in a boot-shaped, rather upsetting VR rig. Viewers who take a moment to consider this might find themselves sharing the disorientation that ensues — especially when Cronenberg offers cryptic visualizations of the psychic exchanges taking place. Beautifully unsettling FX sequences show Tasya literally melting, rebuilding herself as Colin; elsewhere, images of one will pop up where the other is supposed to be, like a ghost or a glitch in the system.

Thanks to whatever was already going on inside Tasya's weakened brain, the two wind up fighting for control of Colin's body. Tasya manages to get some of her mission accomplished — Cronenberg always holds on violence longer than the viewer expects, then adds a grisly grace note, like an eyeball being squeezed out of its socket — but Colin wakes up inside himself and goes on a frenzied Hitchockian quest to understand what's happening to him and how to stop it.

If things didn't get confusing at this point, the film wouldn't be true to its premise. But there's an emotional logic to the action and imagery, carrying viewers along even if they're not quite sure if they're rooting for the innocent man or his troubled attacker. In Possessor, both are victims, exploited even if the capitalists controlling them need to keep their bodies safe for the time being. There's more going on in the pic than just head-trippy genre thrills; with luck, we won't have to wait eight years for the next Brandon Cronenberg film.

Production companies: Rhombus Media, Rook Films
Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Rossif Sutherland, Tuppence Middleton, Sean Bean, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Director-screenwriter: Brandon Cronenberg
Producers: Niv Fichman, Fraser Ash, Kevin Krikst, Andy Starke
Director of photography: Karim Hussain
Production designer: Rupert Lazarus
Costume designer: Aline Gilmore
Editor: Matthew Hannam
Composer: Jim Williams
Casting directors: Pam Dixon, Deirdre Bowen
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)
Sales: Arclight Films

103 minutes