Possessor ★★★★½

Portfolio #11

“Just think, one day your wife is cleaning the cat litter and she gets a worm in her, and that worm ends up in her brain. The next thing that happens is she gets an idea in there, too. And it's hard to say whether that idea is really hers or if it's just the worm. And it makes her do certain things. Predator things. Eventually, you realize that she isn't the same person anymore. She's not the person that she used to be. It's gotta make you wonder whether you're really married to her...or married to the worm.”

Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is an unassuming woman, mother and wife, balancing a strained relationship with her husband and a hidden double-life as a corporate assassin for a secret organization specializing in executing high-profile targets through the use of brain-implant technology. Despite her prowess and reputation as one of the best in her field, her shaky relationship begins to distract her and dull her edge, and her newest hit, one of her biggest and most important yet, threatens to shatter her from within if she can’t pull the job off and pull herself out... 

The second feature film of director Brandon Cronenberg, son of sci-fi/horror great, David Cronenberg, Possessor follows up his first endeavor, Antiviral (2012), eight years later with its 2020 release. Although the COVID-19 pandemic delayed its theatrical run and ultimately led to less-than-stellar box office returns, it saw a strong comeback from home media sales and was met with very positive critical reception. It has been compared more closely to both the visual and thematic styles of his father’s films than Antiviral, specifically David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) and eXistenZ (1999). It explores themes of dissociation, psychic projection, and the fear of losing a grip on one’s self-awareness and identity, and also examines humanity’s integrative relationship with technology and future possibilities and consequent dangers it may pose.  

One's only real life is the life one never leads. - Oscar Wilde 

Possessor is predominantly a visceral visual experience, light on dialogue, but heavy on style and graphic violence. Below the sex and gore lies deeply-reflective and introspective messages about the “self,” however. It is as existential as it is nihilistic, and rather than drawing a divide between the two ideals, it presents them as being profoundly intrinsic. Stylistically, its pacing is unhurried and deliberate, with vibrant lighting and color palettes that give it a chic arthouse aesthetic. Director Brandon Cronenberg preferred to use as little CGI as possible, instead opting to use practical special effects for a timeless appeal that gives homage to the golden era of his father’s films from the late ‘70s through the late ‘90s. The end product is a lovingly-crafted effort that is an outstanding sophomore film and one that erects high expectations for future projects from the up-and-coming prodigal son. Needless to say, he’s carried on his father’s legacy as a filmmaker in a way that is sure to make him proud. 

The film’s seemingly-simple plot disguises a deep philosophical odyssey into the quandary of what it would be like to enter the mind of another and see the world from their perspective; to feel what another feels, see the world how another sees it, and experience things through a separate consciousness. How would that individual’s perceptions of life and our shared world compare and contrast with our own? Though we may rarely think much of it, each person lives their own remote existence with unique relationships, fears, aspirations, preferences, beliefs, etc., and we seldom consider that when passing strangers on the street, at the supermarket, or on the highway. It’s difficult to imagine just what sort of enlightenment and solidarity we could gain from the ability to share consciousness, but instead of focusing on those possible opportunities for collective growth, Possessor veers a sharp left into the territory of the evil which that sort of technology could enable, making the concept of transmittable consciousness seem as frightening as it does desirable. Through this, Cronenberg has developed a terror that seeps deeper into the psyche than physical fear - it creates one of both what we ourselves are capable of doing, as well as what others are capable of making us do. 

The organization for which Tasya Vos works operates by catering to clients who have put out hits on high-profile individuals such as moguls and politicians. To do so in as low-profile a way as possible (and probably a method that most of the public is not aware exists, thus avoiding detection) the organization kidnaps an individual with a close relationship to the target, and surgically affixes them with brain-implant technology that allows trained assassins, like Tasya, to stream themselves into the consciousness of the target and control their thoughts and actions like a puppet, while remaining in contact with an assistive guide/monitor throughout the elaborately-planned undertaking, who in this case is Dr. Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The host individual is then used parasitically to kill the target(s) and then themself, after which the assassin is pulled back into their own consciousness relatively unscathed. It does pose the risk of severe psychological damage to the assassin, however, if they allow their focus or control over the host to wane, as Tasya soon finds out. Additionally, prolonged time inside another’s consciousness can lead to loss of identity, as exemplified by the recall exercises Dr. Girder puts Tasya through after each excursion, which require her to correctly identify personal belongings from her past and the memories attached to them.  

And remember, no matter where you go, there you are. - Confucius   

Possessor is bloody, sleek, and grim, and holds no punches when it comes to perceived cinematic taboos like violently killing children or graphic depictions of sex, which feel more refreshing than dangerous in a relatively-mainstream, contemporary sci-fi film such as this, which from any other director would probably rely on safe, by-the-books directorial methods. Here, it sets Brandon Cronenberg apart from the competition in a way that is necessary in order to break through these days. With Possessor under his belt, he has established himself as a filmmaker worth watching out for and anticipating future efforts from. 

As much as it is distinctly his own creation with a palpable individual style and flair, Possessor also feels very much like a love letter to the Cronenberg legacy left by Brandon’s father. His films Videodrome and eXistenZ both featured prominent themes of humanity’s physical integration with technology, the loss of self-identity that comes along with it, and the dangers it poses to the self and to society as a whole, and those concepts are reflected in Possessor as well. The casting of Jennifer Jason Leigh is most probably a direct nod to eXistenZ, in which she starred as a game designer (Allegra Gellar) who develops a technology that allows people to plug themselves into a device that lets them enter a virtual reality existence. Brandon also worked as a special effects technician on eXistenZ under his father’s wing. 

While the VR technology that was the subject of eXistenZ seemed far-off, though inevitable, on the film’s release in 1999, we now live in an age where it is a present and publicly-available reality. Virtual reality gaming is a rapidly-growing industry with devices available to the general public being sold in electronics stores and even supermarkets around the globe, and the technology has prospective potential for innumerable industries. So, while the idea of streamed consciousness seems like simple science-fiction now, it is a subject of intense interest in our current scientific climate, and who knows how far technology will have progressed in the next several decades. With that said, perhaps Possessor should be regarded as a cautionary example of how wishing so hard to be someone else could result in self-dissolution at best, and self-destruction at worst.

With Possessor, Brandon Cronenberg has proven that he is more than just the son of a prolific director - rather that he himself is a creative force to be reckoned with and stands on his own two feet as a writer and director. His sophomore film is a bleak and debilitating examination on what happens when the limits of individual consciousness are abused, and an existential study on the self and the unquenchable desire to experience life from an outside perspective. Perhaps the more frightening idea is that we, like the general public in the world of Possessor, believe the technology of transmittable consciousness is merely something that could only exist in a far-off future, but in fact is already secretly being utilized all around us to carry out sinister acts of violence for the monetary-gain and social advancement of the rich and powerful. Because if that is the case, then no one is safe, and each of us has the potential to be the next victim of a psychic parasite using us to murder those closest to us, and we’d be powerless to stop it. 

“Pull me out.” 

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