dir: Brandon Cronenberg
Possessor is a nasty, vicious horror movie replete with horrifying and disturbing imagery in the service of a plot that pulls none of the punches you expect would be a done deal in almost any other movie, made by anyone else with a different legacy.
It’s not a film that uses humour to dissipate or alleviate the tension, either. It’s pretty much committed to a singular vision of a terrifying world in which corporate assassins have mastered a technique whereby an assassin’s consciousness can be inserted into a particular person’s brain, allowing them to take out their target, with no-one any the wiser as to the actual ‘person’ pulling the trigger or inserting the knife, as the case may be.
Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is this company’s, called Trematon, star assassin. The first scene is of her “possessing” a woman called Holly (Gabrielle Graham) in order to kill a lawyer at a party. Killing lawyers to improve society has been a longstanding joke since at least Shakespeare’s day, but it’s unlikely he envisaged something as bloody as this. Tasya’s task is to shoot the guy and then herself, but she takes a physical relish in her work, and pleasurably luxuriates in the bloodbath that ensues to the point where the practical necessities don’t seem as necessary anymore.
She tries to shoot herself in the mouth, in an image that will reoccur throughout the film, but cannot bring herself to do so, but luckily, when the cops arrive, they tie up that loose end for her.
From there it cuts back to Tasya waking up out of some awful looking machine, throwing up, but coming back to herself. These possessions are not simple affairs, and they take a lot out of the possessor, and, obviously, everything out of the person taken over.
She has to debrief with the company’s handler, being a woman called Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who asks her if she recognises a number of items, and the back story to those items.
Of significance is the story she tells about a pinned red butterfly, one she pinned as a child, that always makes her feel a bit guilty whenever she looks at it. You’d think with all the people she has likely killed, there are other things to feel bad about. It reoccurs towards the end, to an extremely chilling affect.
As alien as this performance is throughout, and as far nastier as the story gets, the character of Vos is disconcerting from beginning to end. How else would a person losing their sense of self AND carrying out horrific murders in other people’s bodies be?
She has a seemingly tenuous connection to ‘real’ life remaining, beyond the pull of her corporate work. She has an estranged partner, Michael (Rossif Sutherland), whom she sort of wants to reconnect with, and a tiny son, Ira (Gage Graham-Arbuthnot), who matches her in paleness and alienness. When she goes to visit them, after her “job”, she has to practice her lines. She is not quite sure how to say “I’m absolutely starving”, so she practices until it sounds right.
It struck me as odd at first, but later on, when she observing a person that she is going to be inhabiting, if everything goes to plan, for her next “job”, she practices their vocal phrasing, and as such you realise even playing herself is some kind of performance. Her family don’t know what she does for a living, and how would you explain it anyway. She’s just travelling for work, and it’s ever so boring.
Her handler, Girder, which implies ‘support’ or ‘structure’, questions her connection to her family. Great things are on the horizon, killer who takes over other people’s bodies and then murders a bunch of people, if only you cut your last connection to the meaningful world. Girder wants to retire one day, and Vos can take her spot, only if she divests herself of the one thing holding her back…
The next job is prepared, and the true nature of this Trematon corporate espionage bullshit is put on display. This isn’t actually about people hiring killers to take out rivals, or get revenge, or collect on debts, or win arguments about Star Wars or transphobia online: they’re solely corporate tactics intended to allow one company to take over another company. It’s corporate culture taken to its absolute utter extreme.
For her next job Vos has to take over Colin, the body of the boyfriend (Christopher Abbot) of the daughter of a tech mogul. The daughter (Tuppence Middleton) will be collateral damage along the way, but Sean Bean, as the piece of shit Richard Branson-like asshole running things makes you question your values. As in, I like Sean Bean well enough in a number of movies, but sometimes, like here, he actually dares you in the audience to want him to get murdered brutally.
As a prelude to the “job”, Vos, in Colin’s body, has to do a day of work at the mogul’s company. They all wear the loathsome corporate polo shirt that is in this reality, and perhaps in the current Silicon Valley model, but the job is something else. Independent of Vos’s job or machinations, Colin was given an entry level position in the company, kinda to humiliate him, because Daddy hates all of his daughter’s boyfriends? This is all set in Toronto, so I don’t know if this is just a Canadian thing, or a Toronto thing, or a Sean Bean thing.
The job involves wearing these outdated but still disconcerting VR headsets, and looking at an endless sequence of footage stolen from cameras on random people’s devices, ie, mobiles, laptops etc, and identifying the style, fabric and colour of people’s curtains and drapes. So random images from different places pops up, people are visible or not (one couple she/he sees is fucking on camera, and he/she just has to identify the curtains behind them, whether they’re pleated or not). We are given to understand that this is a shitty entry level position at this tech company, and the mundanity of the privacy abuses these pricks go to in order to collect marketing information would be hilarious, if Colin / Vos wasn’t disassociating / falling apart at the seams as all this is going on.
We are given to understand that this form of taking people over is precarious, and difficult, and requires calibration in order to keep the host mind in control. But as we know Vos was losing control even before this, so we’re not expecting everything to go smoothly because, hey, where would be if things went smoothly in the movies, especially disturbing horror movies parodying corporate culture through a Canadian lens?
We’d be on the Hallmark Channel, watching a movie about a middle aged woman finding love again with a cowboy who somehow happens to be Santa as well.
No, we’re watching Possessor, made by the son of Canada’s most evil export, being horror maestro David Cronenberg, who not only clearly knows his father’s work, has no qualms referencing it, or shame, for that matter, and has no qualms about going further than even his father would have. Possessor,, as I started with, is fucking nasty, and it conjures some deeply disturbing images that even top the gore in the murder scenes. Murder scenes that, might I add, haven’t been this patient, colourful or deranged since the days when Dario Argento still made good films (which was 50 years ago).
It’s horrific, it’s uncomfortable and disconcerting, and the most deranged images of all aren’t even the murder scenes. The most disturbing image of all uses a distorted rubber mask showing that Vos’s mind is fucking cracked, and it’s only going to crack more.
What Brandon’s father became most famous for, or alternatively, the hack phrase that people used in relation to Cronenberg’s work was “body horror”. At least from Videodrome onwards, there was this sensibility that he put over in his films that there was this previously untapped source of terror within the audience, for an extra shiver, an extra amount of dread when we saw the body warped in awful ways that’s worse for the viewer than even seeing depictions of bloody murders.
Maybe it’s genetic, because Brandon certainly gets it too. The scenes in Colin’s / Vos’s minds, of bodies melting and reforming, of faces melting into nothingness, or re-coagulating, as are ugly as anything I’ve seen in over 40 years. That masked face, askew, distorted enough to provoke nightmares, not askew enough to end them, will hopefully not end up in the morass of night time images that plague me.
Brandon also applies a certain recognisable aesthetic (not that I’ve seen it before looking like this) of slightly antiquated devices, ones which seem to imply a uniting of design and the human body, as in the various machines that are used, that is in no way reassuring. Devices designed to look vaguely like human skin, or that allow for bodies to interact with them, end up having the opposite effect – they look profoundly unsettling and off-putting, unnatural and worrying. It might recall the organic looking controllers in eXistenZ (which also, not coincidentally, starred Jennifer Jason Leigh), or some of the effects in Naked Lunch. It’s the very opposite of the appliance / Apple shiny, minimalist aesthetic in devices that seem to be preferred these days – smooth, antiseptic, reassuring. You know, the well marketed devices that work alongside us, enhancing and improving our lives.
The diseased aesthetic here implies any melding of people and machines is done for an unholy purpose, being murder, and comes at a horrifying price.
You could make the argument that there is a deeper meaning behind the story, that maybe its satirising the pressures many women feel in the corporate world, trying to achieve work life balance, look after their families but also advance their careers. I think that would be a mistaken approach. This film is about murdering everything and everyone, and the loss of self that comes with dehumanising yourself with the technology around you for some awful purpose.
It might look grotesquely amazing, like a love heart painted in human blood, but there is a liquid nitrogen coldness at the heart of Possessor,, and the viewer should certainly be wary stepping in to this arena.
8 times not a single punch is pulled in this ghastly horror flick out of 10
“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 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.” – how charming - Possessor