Despite a not-so-original premise, the film excels in cerebral science fiction and provocative horror, outshining its predecessors with similar ideas, on the strength of its solid cast, polished direction and the eagerness to go “too far”
Brandon Cronerberg, son of the “baron of blood” David Cronerberg, has a penchant for violence too. His second feature film Possessor finds him pulling off a tricky balance - working in the body horror genre that his father essentially popularized while managing to keep his own vision fresh, relevant and amply disturbing.
The premise of the film surrounds Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), a corporate assassin – seasoned in her craft, but increasingly clumsy and forgetful. Her job is to “possess” the mind and body of unsuspecting strangers and use them to execute the hits of predetermined targets.
Vos' corporation carries out these clandestine, high-end assassinations through sophisticated brain implant technology and veteran, stoic agents like herself. But every time she returns to reality, leaving behind a trail of discarded masks and the corpses of her victims, Vos loses parts of the puzzle that is her identity, until all the bodies she invaded and violated become meshed into her own.
Has she thus been completely reduced to the parasite that latches onto her hosts or has she retained some semblance of humanity along with her own unique set of memories, beliefs and hardships? How much of her is Vos and how much remains of Colin, Holy or the myriad other nameless bystanders whom she methodically selected to possess and annihilate? With each task more convoluted than the last, she doesn’t know anymore, and neither do we.
Vos’ mentor and handler, Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), objects to her decision to keep contact with her estranged husband and son, treating the matter with obvious contempt as another hurdle in the path towards perfecting the art of killing.
As Vos continues to be haunted at work by memories of her family, and at home by memories of murder, it becomes clear that she cannot harbour love and, at the same time, a passion for violence. What is it going to be - family or career? Just to be clear, this is a choice that most non-assassin working women have to grapple with too.
Conflict in Possessor comes to the fore when Vos has to infiltrate the mind of a cocaine addict, Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), and murder his girlfriend’s insufferable, tech tycoon father, John Parse, played by Sean Bean, who is already notorious for his characters’ death onscreen. But during the mission, Colin’s identity overpowers that of Vos and the duo has to wage a fight for the sole control of their consciousness, which would result in the immediate death of one of them.
The idea for Possessor has been conceived in an era of gender-fluidity, unprecedented technological progress, ever-growing corporate depravity, and little to no privacy – striking a chord with our growing insights, fears and concerns vis-à-vis the modern lifestyle we have been accustomed to.
Characters in this unsettling sci-fi drama make choices born out of fierce internal struggles and lengthy deliberations that they have been, nevertheless, unbeknownst to them, manipulated into; basking in a false sense of autonomy, they are essentially cogs in a machine - the extent of their capacity to debate over choices already determined.
As Vos collides with her increasingly fragmented reality - unable to distinguish right from wrong, truth from falsehood, viewers are confronted with the fragility of their own identity, their inadequate understanding of free will, the certain death of privacy in the digital age and the steady advance of corporations into the most intimate aspects of their life.
Director Brandon Cronerberg chooses the road less travelled by, in his only second feature film, by not only steering clear of science fiction tropes, but also subverting our expectations regarding women with trauma on screen. Because at its core, Possessor lacks a redemption arc in what can only be considered a bold choice; this is not a story of a woman fighting her way into the light, it suffers no delusions of nobility. Unlike Inception or Under the Skin, hijacking someone’s consciousness is not in the slightest glorified here.
Instead, Possessor allows its protagonist to meet her demons head-on, revel in the havoc that she created and finally tear apart the return ticket to her old life or any likelihood of salvation, with a striking lack of remorse.