One must be wary of the hyperbole which flows. Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor has already been hailed as the “first great sci-fi movie of the decade”. Even as critics we do not see everything. I always feel that films should be around for a decent period before bestowing such accolades. But as film writers, we need people to see our words. And marketers hope our words will get people to see their films. A good blurb will do that.
Brandon Cronenberg’s debut feature Antiviral (2012) picked up a few plaudits. Not as grandstanding as above but decent. The movie itself was a clinical but stylish affair. David’s baby boy has shown that the apple has not fallen far from the tree. However, it is clear with the film’s glass cut compositions that Brandon had his visions of the body horror sub-space.
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These visions come forth in Possessor. A relentlessly unsettling thriller, which once again has Cronenberg tapping into using people’s bodies as a devious method of corporate resourcing and dirty trading; a theme he attacks with more energy than his father. It is perhaps why both Possessor and Antiviral feel so frosty. Both films hold a considerable distance from the viewer. The characters rarely feel as if they have the baser urges which are often flushed within the older Cronenberg films. These people feel less tempted by the flesh. But money talks.
It certainly talks for Tanya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), a highly regarded assassin who has her consciousness implanted into other people’s heads to control their bodies. In a gory prologue, we are taken on the job. It is emotionally fraught. Understandably so. We discover that the controlled body must expire for the controlling conscious to return. In effect, a clean hit is obtained. The perp is dead. So is the target. Choose the right perp. One close to the target. The handlers do not need to wash their hands. They are nowhere near the wet work.
Consider the toll it takes on the assassin. A person who is not just committing murder but has done so by inhabiting the body of another person. Suppressing their psyche while trying to keep hold of your own. Two minds in the same body. Vos expresses that she still harbours past feelings of guilt. Remnants of her home life hiding in the dark corners. Her handler (Jennifer Jason Leigh) feels such emotions need to be nipped in the bud. Freedom of such feelings will make her even more “equipped” for her role. Especially the next job. It is high paying. It seems clear cut. What could go wrong?
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That glut of information may seem like too much. It is not even a third of the movie. To say more would perhaps really kill off the intrigue. The more we find out, the deeper the existential sludge becomes. The more you wade in, the blacker the abyss becomes. Watching Possessor is an economic and grisly experience. The aftermath of viewing is haunting. Asking the dark questions that other sci-fis might be afraid to ask. As with Antiviral, I asked myself “what type of people would be motivated to do this?”. I was perhaps asking the wrong question. By the end of Possessor, the question I had was “What would need to be removed to make these people better at these horrible tasks?” Possessor seemed to love answering the question.
Cronenberg’s choice of Andrea Riseborough as Vos is an ample one. As is the decision of having Jennifer Jason Leigh as her handler. These are women who morph into their characters. Chameleons who become indistinguishable from role to role. Riseborough has a particular ability to shapeshift and inhabit people with a considerable amount of disconnect. Her performance here gives the feeling that the character’s sense of self is up for sale. To see Vos recanting “normal dialogue” to use in front of her family is unsettling. Does she believe in what she is doing? Is how she acts around her partner an act? You’re never quite sure. The use of Jennifer Jason Leigh is twofold. Her less complicated handler role as Girder feels like an evolution of Vos. The type of person she may become. Her appearance in Existenz (1999) only heightens the father-son connection. A film in which she herself plays the target of assassins, yet also delves into virtual reality becoming diseased. Girder feels much like a survivor of that world.
Then there’s Christopher Abbot. An actor who looks to have come from the TV show Girls the most uninhibited. He edges Adam Driver. As the film’s target, Abbot has a load of heavy lifting. He delivers it subtly. A man inhabited by two consciousnesses, one of which is another gender. An actor who does so well with hanging his vulnerability on his sleeve, Abbot again gathers another formidable notch on his acting belt.
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Possessor is an evolutionary leap from Cronenberg’s debut. It would be easy to say he is treading the same tracks as his father, but there is something different here. He veers off on different tangents, with themes that hold strong relevancy to where we are now, highlighting an element of corporate control which goes into reaches further than the nightmarish data mining of Cambridge Analytica. Thought control as a Russian matryoshka doll, with a tone in the same ballpark as Johnathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013). Is Possessor the first great sci-fi of the decade? I haven’t seen all the movies. But it’s certainly one of the most provocative and unsettling sci-fi movies I’ve witnessed in quite a while.