[Sundance Review] POSSESSOR
Still from POSSESSOR

POSSESSOR is the latest film from writer/director Brandon Cronenberg (Antiviral) which centers around a special agent that uses brain-implant technology to inhabit other people’s bodies in order to carry out assassinations. The film stars Christopher Abbott (It Comes At Night), Andrea Riseborough (Mandy), Sean Bean (Game of Thrones), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Hateful Eight), Tuppence Middleton (Imitation Game), Rossif Sutherland (River) and Kaniehtiio Horn (Journey to the Center of the Earth). To best describe the plot, I’ll turn to the official synopsis:

“Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), is a corporate agent who uses brain-implant technology to inhabit other people’s bodies, driving them to commit assassinations for the benefit of the company. Her experience on these jobs has changed her, and in her own life, she struggles to suppress violent memories and urges. As her mental strain intensifies, she begins to lose control, and soon finds herself trapped in the mind of a man (Christopher Abbott) whose identity threatens to obliterate her own.”

I’ll be honest, I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I first started watching this film. I had seen snippets of Brandon’s previous film, Antiviral, but not enough to form an opinion about him as a director and storyteller. Obviously him being the son of horror master David Cronenberg made me figure that body horror would come into play and that I can say I was 100% right about. What I did love about this film was the concept, as I feel like this form of technology is something that could come to fruition in the not-so-distant future which is quite frightening. To know that you don’t have full autonomy over your actions, instead, being controlled by a person you can’t even see is something that I think most people would be fearful of. Especially when those acts have to do with committing murder for the benefit of a secret corporation.

Besides the concept, another shining aspect of this film is the body horror. Brandon clearly takes after his father in this regard allowing for violent imagery to have a refined, almost glamourous, design to its presentation. At certain moments, the violence is jarring and unexpected, most notably at the beginning of the film as we, the viewer, are trying to put together the pieces of what exactly is going on during the first kill. However, as the film continues, the violence becomes more pronounced as we see Tasya slip in and out of consciousness when taking hold of Colin. This is due to Colin fighting back over the possession of his mind causing a dual battle between the two. Normally, I’m turned off by gore, but in the case of POSSESSOR, it fit the narrative. That said, there are moments that may make some people squeamish (like when we see an eyeball pop out) just due to the brutality of some of the kills. The ending might push a few people’s buttons and for the sake of not spoiling anything, all I’ll say is that it was refreshing to see Cronenberg actually show the scene without relying on panning the camera away from the carnage. I appreciated the risk involved by showing that, even knowing that it might turn some people off.

Speaking of artistic flair, POSSESSOR is, quite simply, beautifully crafted. The cinematography from Karim Hussain is stunning whether he’s using symmetrical framing or the multi-color nightmarish descent into what can only be described as madness. Great care was taken into making this film pop with bold artistic and aesthetic choices. I loved how even though this film is dark and disturbing, the colors were vibrant and clean – giving off an electrifying juxtaposition that made my design-loving heart swell with happiness. Furthermore, Cronenberg didn’t rely on the overused trope of bad things happening solely at night, instead, allowing the horrors of the reality that both Tasya and Colin were in to unfold during the brightest moments of the day. That said, POSSESSOR is definitely an art-house horror film done in a provocative and pleasing way.

As far as the acting goes, I have no qualms. I’ve enjoyed seeing Andrea Riseborough morph into each unique character that she had embodied recently whether it be in the mind-fuck that is Mandy, to the reboot of The Grudge, and now this. She manifests the characters she plays so fully that it’s easy to get lost in her performance. In Tasya, we see as she struggles not only with the work that she is asked to do, as well as the effects it has on her mind, but also her personal life at home and the struggles that come with marriage and raising a kid while maintaining a secretive life. Christopher Abbott is one of the most unique and intriguing actors around and watching his physical transformation between playing Colin, as well as when Tasya takes over, is one for the books. I’ve always enjoyed his performances because he exudes a sense of comfort and quietness but there always seems to be something slightly off, and maybe sinister, lurking behind his puppy dog eyes. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Tasya’s boss, Girder, and god damn did she make me nervous throughout the entire film. Her energy put me on edge as I was never really sure she had Tasya’s best interest at hand. To her, Tasya is a vessel that she will use until there’s nothing left, no matter the consequence to Tasya. As usual, Leigh puts on a fantastic performance even though her skittish behavior left me feeling uneasy.

In all, POSSESSOR is a horror gem of a film. Though body horror typically isn’t my cup of tea, I really enjoyed the concept of the film and how technology could become so advanced that a situation like this could be plausible. True horror takes place when we know that the terrifying circumstances presented could unfold and POSSESSOR does a brilliant job of combining that with the vivid abstract imagery while showcasing moments of relentless violence. Believe me when I say, you’ll want to seek this film out.

Shannon McGrew
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