Possessor

Possessor ★★★★★

Holy fucking shit.

When I heard that Brandon Cronenberg, son of legendary Canadian director David Cronenberg, was directing a body horror/science fiction film I was understandably jazzed. I have to concede that it’s neither fair nor reasonable to expect Brandon Cronenberg’s work to be a certain way just because of who his father is, but the Cronenberg name is so iconic that I have a hard time not getting at least a little giddy and expectant when I see it. Despite the monumental level of unreasonable expectation his very name conjures, Brandon Cronenberg did both the impossible and yet somehow the obvious by delivering exactly what the casual onlooker would expect, he made a Cronenberg movie. More pressingly, he made a damn good Cronenberg movie.

Possessor follows Andrea Risenborough as a mind controlling assassin in the near future who, while suffering from a deteriorating mental state, attempts to carry out a hit that inadvertently takes her on a phantasmagorical mindfuck nightmare odyssey. Despite some of this film’s loftier sci-fi concepts, it doesn’t dig deep with expository character development or world building, things are kept refreshingly sparse. This minimalistic storytelling approach allows for a film where we’re allowed to just sort of watch things happen as opposed to spending much time being told stuff. There’s some exposition, sure, but only enough to give us something to float on and not enough to let us drown.

This is isn’t to say Possessor’s writing is lazy or a nonentity. There’s a persistent sense of moral, emotional and psychological decay that colors the entire narrative. Our central character is an unabashedly bad person who does bad things at the expense of herself both literally and metaphorically. For the duration of the film we watch a literal bout of mental gymnastics as Andrea Risenborough’s Tasya attempts to hold tightly to her humanity in the face of the sheer inhumanity of the things she does. It’s a conflict that’s obvious and fascinating even if the script doesn’t expressly voice it. The lead performances, courtesy of Andrea Risenborough and Christopher Abbott, give all the emotional information one could want and allow for the relatively sparse script to feel punchy instead of obtuse or dull. Every passing moment of Possessor feels colored by some underlying struggle, pain or tension and it makes for a compelling, uncomfortable, raw cinematic experience from start to finish.

The setting, too, adds to the film’s overall feel in a uniquely positive way. Possessor takes place in the future, but in a nonspecific, seemingly non-distant sense. The film is set in a non-descript urban setting (shot in Toronto), featuring a smattering of various accents, adding to the the ambiguity of its location. It’s also notably set in a vaguely dystopian world; apart from the presence of mind-controlling assassins working in the shadows, we also have an all powerful evil corporation run by a megalomaniacal douchebag (Sean Bean) that uses mass surveillance as a means of marketing to people in a more personalized way, echoing many modern paranoias. The setting, vaguely sinister but divorced from specific time or place, adds onto some of the film’s more dream-like (or more suitably, nightmarish) proclivities and makes for a more singular, engrossing experience.

Once you get out from under the hood, what really outwardly shines here is this film’s visual style. Sure, in some ways the writing and tone is reminiscent of some of David Cronenberg’s mid-period works like Scanners and Videodrome, but the visual style is something else entirely. This film evokes 80’s body horror in spirit, through a visual approach distinctly informed by the likes of Refn and Cosmatos’s revisionist 80’s aesthetic. Heavy emphasis on glorious impressionistic neon light, grainy visuals and surreal, dream-like sequences really define the look of Possessor and it’s a look that really amplifies it’s old school approach. Possessor doesn’t have a strictly, authentically 80’s visual flair, but it evokes a hyper-stylized version of what the 80’s visual philosophy really represents in the pop culture space, it evokes that very specific era of film in an inescapably modern way. This movie uses its visuals, writing and tone to deliver something that feels like a logical modern extension of the kind of stuff David Cronenberg was doing in the 80’s, but in a way only a younger director could really do. Suffice it to say, Possessor is a damn good looking movie with a stunning visual style.

The use of practical effects, particularly with the onscreen gore, really puts Possessor on another level and is arguably the thing that connects this work most strongly with the senior Cronenberg’s. The gore is grotesque and visceral and really reminiscent of a bygone era in horror filmmaking. Possessor’s gore makes it admittedly hard to watch at times, but it’s a level of brutality perfectly suited to the film’s tone. The harsh violence and surreal atmosphere helps make this film feel pervasive and foreboding, crafting a world that feels ugly and oppressive in a hypnotic and transfixing way. I’ll always have love and admiration for a film willing to commit to practical effects, particularly as it relates to gore.  

I couldn’t take my eyes off this movie, I found its detached mood, amped up by its minimal storytelling and uncomfortable atmosphere to be the exact approach to sci-fi horror/80’s revisionism that I‘ve been craving. Brandon Cronenberg channels his father but takes that one step further, bringing the body horror and surreal tendencies into the 21st century in a way even David Cronenberg couldn’t. This looks right, it has that palatably foreboding and nightmarish vibe, there’s a formidable cast and a real level of craftsmanship on display that makes Possessor one of the best movies I’ve seen in a while. Brandon Cronenberg also shows that he’s not here to idly walk in his father’s footsteps, he’s refining what his father started and bringing it to a whole new level with a voice that’s familiar, but unmistakably new.

Mason liked this review