Possessor

Possessor ★★★★½

Some day people may stop comparing Brandon Cronenberg to his dad, but today is not that day, because we are talking about an incredibly gory and gross and grim and paranoid horror-SF movie with a meticulous visual design and tightly wound performances, so... if you happen to be someone who spent part of the '80s freaking people out by making them watch Videodrome or Scanners, this is more like those than anything else these days. In other ways, with its intense character focus and rich color palette and odd flashes of humor through a cloud of doom, it's also got one foot in Cronenberg Sr.'s 21st-century style. This director is still his own person (unlike some of the characters in the movie) and I'll stop talking about the dad now, but I'm mentioning these things just to say that if you are a fan of the dad, and if you have a strong stomach, you definitely should see this.

Possessor takes a premise that's been done a million times in both SF and horror—someone inhabiting other people's bodies and impersonating them by remote control—and makes it seem unfamiliar on several levels. The most obvious one is the aesthetic: unlike a lot of movies and shows that portray body-hopping either with a computery/VR feel or as an ethereal dream, the imagery in this (and the excellent sound design) is very analog, organic, up-close and messy—not just in terms of gore, but the whole way our horrible protagonist Tasya Vos experiences life, soaking in emotional and sensory overload as she goes about her contract-murder career. This character is the other unfamiliar part. Usually in stories like this, the possessing entity is either a monster who's out to get us, or a protagonist who's on a dangerous mission, or someone who got into this situation by accident—but Vos is sort of all of those at once: what she's doing is horrifying (she'll kill the target of the contract and also the person whose body she uses to do it, and maybe some bystanders too), and there are enough risks that it's also challenging and suspenseful, and she's also clearly in over her head. The way the plot unfolds, following her from the end of one murder mission into the setup of another which then goes off the rails in a big way, is designed to hook us on trying to understand who this person is, why she's doing this, and whether she'll find a way out of this nightmare job or a way to make it even worse.

Vos in her own body is played by the hypnotic Andrea Riseborough, bleached and Swintonified to convey that this is a very smart and sensitive person who's on the verge of totally falling apart in every way, either due to the horror of her work or the gradual brain damage that comes with it. She can't really experience normal human emotion except through her victims (until fear shakes her up as the plot kicks in), so although Riseborough's performance is very good it's a deliberately incomplete one, with the other parts of the character being filled in by two other actors: Christopher Abbott as the guy she's possessing, and Jennifer Jason Leigh as her boss/mentor/counselor, Girder (the names in this are all very chewy). Leigh has only a few scenes but she's great, bringing just enough personal connection and warmth to put Vos into context as someone who could have had a friend or a life of her own at some point; part of Girder's job is to debrief Vos with memory cues to see if she's still clear on who she is. It's a pretty twisted kind of personal connection, since Girder is pretty up-front about wanting her to become even less human, and there's some good psychological material here about how people can use professional demands to justify a cycle of abuse.

I've seen some complaints that we don't know enough about Riseborough's and Abbott's characters to be able to keep track of who's who, or that her affect is too opaque for us to care what she's doing. Your mileage may vary, but for me those things are just where they need to be; it's an approach that goes against standard ways of creating character identification, but it's right for a story that's partly about fooling yourself as to where your decisions are coming from, and the stakes aren't just about our hero/villain personally but the mayhem she's inflicting on everyone else. And in a nightmare story, I'm fine with the kind of dream logic where you don't exactly know what you're trying to do till you've done it.

The violence is extreme and graphic to say the least and very well done, and I like the style of the hallucinatory scenes a lot too, but to me some of the subtler and odder choices in the movie are just as memorable. The flavor of its science-fiction gadgets is one that works like crazy for me: it's retro, sort of a '70s audio equipment look, but that's less about decoration than making things look functional and lived-in—like, it doesn't matter how this thing works, it just obviously is what it is because it's got such specific parts (which extends to the sound design too: there's a futuristic weapon that makes a simple realistic noise I don't think I've ever heard from a movie prop before). The one thing that's shiny and digital is also hilarious: when Abbott's character goes to his job, which is the worst Internet job ever, he sits down in a crowded sweatshop and puts on VR goggles not because there's anything 3-D about his actual work, but just so he can see a simulation of a nice office where his work appears on a fake flat screen at a fake computer on his nice fake desk.

But possibly my favorite effect is one that has no inanimate ingredients at all: the first time we see someone who's possessed, Vos is putting their body through a "calibration" exercise where turning a little dial has some kind of emotional effect—their expression keeps subtly changing and we're not sure if they're in pain or afraid or excited or what, we just know it's intense. In a movie that gives us so many extreme things to look at, I like the decision to keep this one experience totally hidden except for what's on an actor's face.

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