Sundance Review: Possessor
Early buzz had Possessor pegged as one of the most shocking horror films in years, hype that was only exacerbated by the Sundance Film Festival’s post-premiere decision to start carding all ticket-holders at the door to ensure no one under the age of eighteen was admitted to subsequent screenings. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, the bite-sized and non-contextualized reactions were misleading. Yes, Possessor has enough truly gruesome violence and graphic sexual content that passing muster with the MPAA will be a near-Herculean task, but director Brandon Cronenberg — like his father David — is less interested in merely shocking audiences for the sake of it than he is in deeply unsettling them, forcing them to confront ideas about technology and humanity that linger long after the eye-gouging and throat-stabbing have become afterthoughts. Possessor takes place in a world not too far removed from our own, a near future in which Amazon-esque companies are even more powerful and militarized technology has advanced to a point where you can put out a hit on a political or business rival and a shady company will carry out the assassination through the use of remote-controlled human drones. Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough, continuing to work her way into the “most interesting working actor” conversation) is one of the best in the business at piloting these living weapons, but her home life is a mess and she seems to be cracking a little under the strain — it’s maybe not the best time for her to go back to work, especially when work involves kidnapping the boyfriend of the daughter of a corporate bigwig in order to implant oneself in the boyfriend’s brain and force him to murder said bigwig. But back to the grind she goes and, as you might have guessed, hijinks and mental breakdowns ensue. But the assassinations and intrigue are really just window dressing, providing Cronenberg a narrative sandbox in which to explore the psychological ramifications of two minds battling for control of one brain and one body. Riseborough and Christopher Abbott (phenomenal as the aforementioned boyfriend/unwitting assassin) share very little screen time — if any at all — but the strength of their individual performances, combined with Cronenberg’s visual stylings and Matthew Hannam’s clever editing, has you believing that the pair is truly bonded like some terrifying mental Brundlefly. Though the last thing Cronenberg may want to hear are references to his father’s work, the comparison is a favorable one as Possessor’s standout segments seem inspired by the legendary director’s best forays into body horror while simultaneously looking not quite like anything we’ve ever seen before. Using primarily in-camera effects, Cronenberg stages a battle for the psyche that feels like it could be set in a red-drenched nightmare version of Inception, if instead of theft the thought-crime taking place was the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. If this sounds like a backhanded compliment, rest assured it isn’t — these scenes are truly something to behold, including a setpiece involving a prosthetic mask that ranks among the most viscerally unnerving sequences I have ever seen. Unfortunately, Cronenberg isn’t quite able to find the right balance between these ideas and the story taking place outside of the protagonists’ heads, which leads to some uneven pacing and a third act that relies a little too much on the viewer’s ability to keep up with plot machinations and character motivations that were mostly just rattled off by Jennifer Jason Leigh during the movie’s early goings. While this prevents the film from fully sticking the landing, Possessor’s visual and conceptual style earns it more than enough goodwill to make up for its narrative shortcomings — and if this work is any indication, we can expect Cronenberg to be infesting our psyches for years to come.