Brandon ‘Son of David' Cronenberg dips his toes into the body horror waters that helped establish his father as a maestro of bloody genre cinema. Doing so may seem like a fool's errand for the Canadian filmmaker, as he directly invites comparison to the work of his father, whilst also attempting to stand by his own merit. It is a bold move, one which is either built on confidence or arrogance. On the evidence of the film itself, however, you should come to believe that it falls more on the side of a vote of confidence, as it is audacious in such a way that you imagine Dad would be very proud of.
Andrea Riseborough stars as Voss, an agent for a company that has the technology to implant Voss into anybody's mind in order to make them carry out assassinations. Voss displays a particular flare for this violent line of work, but it is beginning to take a toll on her, as all sense of normal life is torn away, her mind blurred by memories of brutal murder from jobs past. Her latest assignment could very well prove to be her breaking point.
The central premise of Possessor is undoubtedly an intriguing one. The idea of an assassin being able to control anybody they want to commit the perfect clean assassination, ones which end up looking like murder-suicides, is one that could be played out in any number of styles. You can almost imagine an Inception-like approach in an action sci-fi. But here, Cronenberg takes a darker, more disturbing path, one which focuses on the invasion of bodies, and an individual's battle with violent urges.
The imagery Cronenberg conjures around both the technology and scenes of the grotesque is often mind boggling and disturbing, but also very hard to keep your eyes off. Scenes are bloody, gnarly, and penetrating, as Cronenberg builds on the paranoia of having your body invaded to frightfully good effect. Through his sci-fi tinged premise, Cronenberg unpacks modern paranoia involving surveillance and invasion of personal space. It often goes for easy targets and obvious points of reference, but it keeps this a modern affair even amidst a technology and aesthetic that feels like a not too distant future.
The story can often feel like a second thought to the central concept and as a means to build the striking imagery. But the characters remain engaging, particularly in the case of Voss, who is given a volatile energy by Riseborough, and Christopher Abbott, the latest puppet to be controlled for the use of Voss' mysterious agency. As the proceedings get bloodier, the mood more punishing, it does end up becoming something of an endurance test, with the performances doing a great deal to keep you on the hook. This film is a spiky object that delivers moments of stomach-churning gore that'll prove very hard for some to take. You'll either be in awe or in complete disgust, and either reaction is completely understandable. The film's fearlessness though is something which is absolutely unquestionable.
The body horror elements and techno-thriller premise are all components one would expect from Cronenberg Snr, but the son has more than enough original thought when it comes to tone and imagery, allowing him to stand apart from his father's shadow, whilst also acknowledging the lessons they teach. The exploration of privacy and voyeurism give it an edge that keeps things thematically compelling, even as it descends more into gory hell. It is a very cold experience, but it is hard to deny that sense of intrigue that develops, as you become more macabrely compelled to see just how far it is willing to go. It is sadistic, it is grotesque, and it is most certainly not for the faint of heart. But it is a dive into a dangerous mind that proves to be very hard to tear yourself away from.
Dir: Brandon Cronenberg
Scr: Brandon Cronenberg
DOP: Karim Hussain
Music: Jim Williams
Runtime: 104 minutes
Possessor screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2020 on October 16th. It is set to be released in UK cinemas and on demand from November 27th 2020.