Possessor ★★★★½

One of my formative cinematic experiences was discovering David Cronenberg during my mid to late teens and running through every film of his that I could get my hand on. His body horror stuff in the ‘70s and ‘80s especially blew my mind, and the ways that he brought those elements into his work even as he evolved into other areas. It’s been a sad time not having any new films from him in almost a decade now, and his last few being a little disappointing (although I do really like Cosmopolis), so watching Possessor felt like the quench that I needed for this great thirst. It might be a little obvious to compare Brandon Cronenberg’s, son of David, new film to his father’s work, but this movie really does feel like it’s in conversation with those earlier movies, and the experience is all the better having that prior knowledge of daddy Cronenberg’s canon.

In fact, with the casting of Jennifer Jason Leigh in her role as a supervisor of the disturbing team that allows the main character (Andrea Riseborough) to enter and control the body of others, I quickly started feeling like Possessor could function as a spiritual, or even direct, sequel to David’s supremely underrated 1999 film eXistenZ, with Leigh playing the same character. It functions in similar territory, exploring the lengths that the human species will go for control, as well as the ways in which our advancing technologies will be utilized by private companies to facilitate their own means of espionage and corporate power plays. The movie exists in a world slightly removed from our own (in a lot of ways you could compare it to an extended Black Mirror episode, although that feels more like an insult now than it would have five years ago), yet it’s also a world we could see ourselves inhabiting in ten years time.

Riseborough ostensibly plays the lead, but most of our screentime ends up being spent with Christopher Abbott, playing the man whom Riseborough’s character “possesses”. Abbott continues to prove that he’s one of the most interesting and exciting actors of his generation, and I think this is easily the best performance of his to date. The fact that he is able to convincingly portray a shelled out man being controlled by another consciousness and have you totally buy it is impressive enough, but as the film goes on and these lines start to get blurred, the weight that is put on Abbott to hold up the concept of this movie and what’s being done with his character becomes so much heavier and most actors would easily buckle under it. As much as this movie rides on Cronenberg’s skills as a director and visual artist, just as much rides on Abbott’s ability to pull off this immeasurably complex role, and he nails it every step of the way. I think it’s one of the best performances of the year.

It’s also one of the best movies of the year, and I’m so glad that I finally caught up with it. Being able to see a genuinely impressive, incredibly immersive and bone chilling sci-fi thriller is an all too rare delight, so it really sticks with me when it happens. The visual portrayals of the possession sequences, and the chaotic representations of when those lines start coming unstuck and things get way more complicated, are some of the most gorgeous and unsettling sequences put on screen in years. The cinematography, score, and editing all create a wholly immersive and terrifying experience that I haven’t gotten from any other film. I’m so grateful when a film can give me something that nothing else ever has, and it makes me want to immediately revisit Possessor to be brought back under its spell.

Some other stray thoughts are that I think the opening is a little questionable and certainly releasing in 2020 I think maybe has more loaded meaning in it than Cronenberg was thinking about when making the movie. That’s the one part of the movie that’s disturbing in an (presumably) unintended way. The rest of the gore scenes are extremely effective, wisely following in father’s footsteps by utilizing practical effects wherever possible. I know I’ve spent a lot of time comparing the film to his father’s canon, and that’s inevitable, but Possessor does feel more like it’s in conversation with his father’s work, an evolution that is still of his own invention, rather than a derivative imitation. It’s done in all of the right ways and makes me extremely excited to see what Brandon is going to come up with next.

For the record, I watched the Uncut version.

Added to 2020 ranked

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