By Harri Knight-Davis, Second Year, Film & Television
The world of Possessor (2020), from the outside looking in, seems fairly familiar; vapour from e-cigarettes fills the air and powerful corporations treat workers horrendously and spy on you though the cameras in your home. There is nothing particularly shocking about it.
However, writer and director Brandon Cronenberg escorts us into this world through a, seemingly secret, operation allowing a willing participant to enter someone else's body and mind in order to assassinate the intended target – mostly white rich men.
Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is the assassin who transfers her mind and body into the unwilling host. First into Holly (Gabrielle Graham) — for the most horrifically jarring and bloody sequence that you will likely see from a film all year — then secondly, and most importantly, the body and mind of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott). Her goal is to murder his future father-in-law John Parse (Sean Bean), the owner of a data-mining company, where Colin works his low-paid job.
Riseborough and Abbott are both superbly chilling as cinema’s most deranged double act. Both actors are steadily becoming horror icons with Abbott’s turns in the giallo-adjacent Piercing (2018) and 2017’s It Comes At Night and Riseborough in the psychedelic Nic Cage romp Mandy (2018). With both actors at the height of their powers and their horror baggage, the intensity and visceral dread of Cronenberg’s grisly sophomore feature is visceral.
Cronenberg merges present day technological tensions, the psychology of wanting to, quite literally, live in someone else’s skin and ultra-violent kills with just a splash of blood. Possessor’s claustrophobic atmosphere and almost suffocating immersion is punctuated with extreme, indelible, violence. This violence relieves the tension, only in order to churn your stomach and cement images that will never leave you.
The tankards of blood that feature in the film may be too much for the faint-hearted, but in a recent New York Times interview, Cronenberg stated that blood can ‘be metaphorically poignant, bringing what’s inside us out and making art of it’. Whether you align with this theory or Quentin Tarantino’s ‘because it’s so much fun’ reasoning behind significant bloodshed, Possessor undoubtedly deserves its 18-certificate rating.
Possessor grabs you by your throat from the opening sequence and rarely loosens its grip – when it does it is only for Cronenberg to tighten it in the film's climactic sequences. The film’s only particular lowkey scenes are all examinations of Tasya’s mental state and psychology. One where her mental state is actually being scrutinised, by Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who runs the assassination programme, after one of Tasya’s inhabitations. The next is Tasya’s reuniting with her family, which she is longing to do, but seems apprehensive at the same time.
Possessor’s claustrophobic atmosphere and almost suffocating immersion is punctuated with extreme, indelible, violence
She seems in great need of time with her family, but within a few days or maybe even hours she is tired of her own skin, desperate to escape into anyone else’s. All of Tasya’s family tensions and the deeper psychological issues come lassoing, elegantly and disturbingly, around in the film’s brutal conclusion.
This film attempts to confront big corporations and their current exploitation of technology and disregard of privacy, while simultaneously building this complex world and craft this story all through the eyes of an unstable woman, while she occupies another soul. Cramming all of Cronenberg’s ideas into a tight running time is an impressive task, but in doing so the film struggles to balance its intentions, hence leaving some half-baked threads in the oven.
Karim Hussain’s crisp photography adds to the eerie and heady mood of the picture, while the make-up department create some nightmarish imagery of facial disfigurement that disappear within seconds — it’s the air of mystery that adds terror — but the attention to detail is what makes Possessor striking and significantly better than your run-of-the-mill horror schlock.
At times, during Possessor, it is difficult not to acknowledge the similarities between Cronenberg junior and senior, but perhaps Cronenberg Jr’s greatest achievement is in creating a singular, unique and horrifying vision that even his Father would recoil from.
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