Possessor ★★★★

Who are you?

Almost by nature, anyone crafting science fiction aims to tackle some prevalent, modern theme; what is a dystopia if not a reflection of censorship, authoritarianism, and complacency with conformity? What is a voyage into deep space if not a reflection on life itself, or artificial intelligence if not a reckoning with the limitations of human nature? Many films attempt to plumb such depths, but few do so as clinically as Possessor.

Andrea Riseborough portrays Tasya Vos, an assassin who, unlike certain romanticized evocations of experts in stealth, weapons, and hand-to-hand kinetics, has her consciousness temporarily implanted in a waiting body with a feasible motive; what better way to stage a killing and cover it up than having it carried out by the most likely suspect? Tasya is good at her job, but just as anyone consumed with their work takes it home with them, she's finding it harder and harder to divorce herself from her victims.

The duality of this notion is one of Possessor's unique charms: are Tasya's victims the people she kills, the people she inhabits, or both? Inasmuch as she temporarily controls her executioners, is she simply being controlled by the corporation facilitating these assassinations, the people who pay the corporation for her services, or both? When she loses a piece of herself, is it to her clients, the corporation, or both?

Riseborough ably plays a woman for whom practice is a must; whether she's preparing to kill someone or have dinner with her son Ira and separated spouse Michael, her rehearsals are equally intense. Fortunately, her boss Girder, a veteran assassin played with fiendish banality by Jennifer Jason Leigh, has been here before, even if that means she's slightly less sympathetic to Tasya's fraying sense of self.

The muddling dichotomy of the title is clever, and the film ably explores territory pioneered by director Brandon Cronenberg's father David, who emulsified voyeuristic sex and violence merging with corporate control of the individual in Videodrome. But with Possessor, Brandon is not merely copying the family playbook, he expands on it by fixating on the mind rather than the flesh; while dad reached his artistic pinnacle with Dead Ringers, his first film more psychological than visceral, the elder Cronenberg never truly merged that depth of characterization with his inventive bloodlust. When Tasya embodies her latest subject, we witness the takeover as a melting reconstruction of her victim's flesh, visually representing mutual psychological trauma rather than bodily harm. How peculiar, then, that Tasya suffers from a loss of self concurrent with a rise in her proclivity for violence.

- Minor spoilers below. -

In the body of her latest client, Colin Tate, tackled by a never-better Christopher Abbott, Tasya seems weary and unfocused yet fixated: after luxuriating in the stabbing of an earlier mark whom she was supposed to shoot, she now gleefully "stabs" Tate's girlfriend Ava with her new male appendage. Her true target is Ava's father, CEO John Parse, whom Tasya is to murder alongside Ava. Suffice it to say, things don't go as planned, and the psychologically vulnerable Tasya soon falls victim to her own victim: Tate.

- Major spoilers abound. -

Once the two come into conflict, Tate and Tasya smear until Tate regains control in full possession of Tasya's memories, leading them back to her son and ex-husband. It seems a natural inflection point for Tate to threaten undoing Tasya's life after she'd done the same for him, but here's where Cronenberg takes his conceit a step beyond a simple revenge narrative.

In a shocking twist, Tate kills Michael, only for Ira to fatally stab Tate, who then shoots Ira. When Tasya is freed from her tether to Tate, Girder is revealed to have controlled Ira.

On its surface, it may seem a simple case of Girder freeing Tasya from her life's attachments to become a better operative. But is it not also possible that Tasya's occupation rightfully put her family in a distant second? That Girder's intervention was less an act of asset protection than it was a favor that fulfilled Tasya's unadmitted desires? Having familiarized myself with the particulars of family annihilation, I found myself in the unavoidable embrace of the parallels depicted in Possessor.

It would be impossible to watch this film without being reminded of the Cronenberg cinematic legacy: violence, sex, imagination, catharsis, and all the other superficial things with which this son must wrestle on behalf of his father. Would the ultimate catharsis not resolve with the progeny undoing the firmament which begat him in search of his own truth? Or paying lip service to those ideals in the grasp of the quotidian dissolution of self?

Possessor is not the last word in sci-fi psychological thrillers, but it might arguably be the best successor to the legacy whence it came.

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