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Non-Review Review: Possessor

Possessor is a brutal and graphic slice of body horror, unsettling and uncanny in equal measure.

It seems unfair to define writer and director Brandon Cronenberg by his relationship to his father, Canadian horror maestro David Cronenberg. The fact that it’s possible to draw a clear line from his father’s work on films like Scanners, The Brood and Videodrome through to Possessor only makes these comparisons more obvious and ubiquitous. However, Brandon Cronenberg has already established himself as a potent force in the body horror genre with his feature debut, AntiViral.

She can explain the plot until she’s red in the face…

Possessor is a grotesque and creepy addition to the genre. The movie focuses on Tasya Vos, a professional assassin who completes her assignments by hijacking the body of somebody close to her target, allowing her to infiltrate their inner circle and carry out the murder in that persona. As the premise suggests, Possessor is rife with body horror. The film is built around the classic body horror nightmare, the realisation that the human body is ultimately nothing more than an often malfunctioning machine made of meat, equally often at odds with the mind driving it.

At the same time, Possessor is perhaps a little too broad and too abstract. Possessor is obviously a body horror, but its storytelling often feels closer to the more abstract social horrors that are popular in modern American independent cinema, films like She Dies Tomorrow. This is interesting in some respects, but also leaves the film feeling a little too vague at points. The problem isn’t that Possessor has nothing to say, it’s more that it’s trying to say everything at once. While this confusion is occasionally effective given the themes of the story, it is also frequently frustrating.

Piecing it together.

The plot of Possessor is primarily concerned with one particular assignment, as Tashya is tasked with infiltrating the private circle of billionaire John Parse by hijacking the body of his future son-in-law Colin Tate. This naturally involves Tashya first studying Colin’s life and mannerisms, and then – once she has taken control of his body – submerging herself into his world while trying to fool the people closest to him. At the same time, there is a strong recurring suggestion that this relationship is not entirely binary; that Colin is not entirely subsumed by Tashya.

Possessor has no shortage of big ideas. The film consciously and deliberately leaves itself open to a variety of interpretations. The film seems to gesture towards social commentary, particularly issues around privacy and voyeurism in the digital age. Even before she takes control of Colin, Tashya surveils him, in a more old-fashioned manner, watching him in his intimate moments. Colin himself works a dead-end job for his future father-in-law, which consists largely of trawling through people’s webcam footage, making note of their drapery as a perverse form of market research.

Getting into the right headspace.

As with many things, Possessor is somewhat ambiguous about the nature of Colin’s job. Is the company hacking into the cameras on people’s devices? Is it accessing those recording devices in accordance with various user policies that nobody either reads or cares about? Is this information that people are simply putting online consciously-but-absent-mindedly? The film seems to imply the latter, with the various characters that Colin watches being conscious of the camera and often performing for it, but Possessor is never entirely clear.

This ambiguity lends itself to a variety of slightly different interpretations. Is this an overstep of boundaries by a corporation? Is this something that customers legally signed up to without realising? Is it something that the people on camera simply don’t care about? Possessor leaves these options open, only drawing the vaguest parallel between Tashya’s violation of Colin and Colin’s job peering through webcams. “A certain kind of mind must get off on that kind of violation of privacy,” remarks one of his fiancée’s friends.

Gogglebox.

Possessor is not interested in exposition or infodumps. This is mostly effective from a storytelling perspective; the actual story and character dynamics of the film are clear-cut and Cronenberg is skilled enough as both a director and a writer that he can communicate the particular mechanics of his world effectively to the audience. Possessor never really explains the particulars of how or why the technology that drives the plot functions, or the levels at which Tashya’s employers operate.

This is effective in terms of tone and atmosphere. Holding back on that information – while providing just enough – serves to make Possessor particularly skin-crawling. After all, so much horror exists in shadows and ambiguities. However, these vagaries undercut the film’s function as metaphor or allegory for the modern world, which seems like a slight miscalculation given how heavily the film leans on the idea of privacy and the horrors of capitalist obsession.

Talking to the man in the mirror…

Possessor gestures broadly at big ideas. The film’s opening scene finds Tashya taking control of a hostess to infiltrate a party to kill a target named Elio Manza. The hostess is a black woman. Tashya is supposed to kill her contract and then the host body, presumably to avoid letting the authorities figure out what happened. However, the body seems to resist. Tashya cannot kill her host. The police arrive to find a black woman holding a knife over a dead body. They do not hesitate.

This is a powerful and evocative image, one rich with ideas that merit exploration. What is it like for a white woman to present herself as a black woman? Would law enforcement have been so quick to pull the trigger if it had been a white woman standing over the body? Was this a factor when planning the operation? It also hints at other uncomfortable subtext about the exploitation of other people’s bodies, and the dynamics that play in the background. However, Possessor leaves these ideas largely unexplored and unarticulated, underdeveloped and largely implied.

Going deep under cover.

Luckily, this is not the film’s only angle of exploration. Possessor understands that its science-fiction hook can reflect all manner of more personal identity crises. In many ways, Possessor works better as a more intimate story. At certain points, Tashya seems almost like a stereotype of a method actor struggling to adjust to life inside and outside the skin of another person. Returning home to her family after a troubled assignment, Tashya spends a few moments rehearsing her delivery of homecoming clichés: “hi darling!”, “what have you got there?”, “I am absolutely starving.”

Naturally, there’s a strong recurring sense that Tashya might be losing herself in this process. Girder, her handler, walks her through that opening murder. “Why stab Elio Manza?” Girder asks as he reviews photographs of the crime scene. “You were provided with a pistol.” Tashya responds, “Well, maybe it just seemed more in character?” Girder wryly observes, “Whose character?” Studying Colin, Andrea tries to emulate his mannerisms, his speech rhythms, his tone. Taking control of his body, she practices his facial expressions in a mirror, trying to replicate his movements.

Where’s her head at?

Possessor is very aware of this point of comparison. Girder describes Tashya’s work as a “performance”, suggesting a more extreme variation of the process that film fans might associate with Daniel Day Lewis or Robert DeNiro. Towards the climax, the metaphor is literalised as Colin imagines himself wearing an unconvincing rubber mask of Tashya – or, perhaps, Tashya imagines herself as Colin imaging himself as Tashya wearing an unconvincing rubber mask of herself. It’s easy to get lost in all of that.

Andrea Riseborough does a lot to anchor the film in this sense, particularly given the movie’s conscious disinterest in expository dialogue. Riseborough is an expressive actor, but one very adept at communicating character non-verbally. It is no surprise that Riseborough has become a fixture of genre cinema, as that skill set is incredibly useful. Riseborough can generally anchor and occasionally even elevate genre material that needs a strong centre to keep it balanced.

Handling this all rather well.

Possessor arguably works better in this broader and more abstract sense than it does as an attempt at social commentary. Possessor functions best as a body horror movie than as a biting satire. After all, the idea of a human mind operating at odds with the body housing it is one that is surprisingly relatable. As played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Girder confesses that she has gotten too old for the work that Tashya now performs, musing, “I’m becoming old. I barely recognise myself any more.” Over time, everybody’s body becomes alien to them.

This makes sense. Possessor is a classic body horror. The film is built around the idea that bodies are inherently strange. The film communicates this clearly and effectively. Even an idle shot of Tashya on the phone, her hand idly flexing and stretching as if she’s trying to acclimatise to it, gets this fear across. Cronenberg does not hesitate to hammer this point home. Over the course of the film, the audience is continuously reminded of just how soft and squishy the human body is, of the ways in which it is not as absolute or permanent as people might like to think.

Give my head peace.

After all, Possessor is released in cinemas as “Possessor Uncut.” A title card assures audiences, “The following film has not been modified from its original version.” The film doesn’t flinch. The make-up and practical effects are delightfully unsettling. Dan Martin’s practical special effects are suitably skin-crawling, while cinematographer Karim Hussain and editor Matthew Hannam heighten the impact of that work. In particular, the film’s sound design by Martin Pavey and foley work by Ben Cross and Ian Waggott adds immeasurably to the movie’s effectiveness.

Possessor is perhaps a little too broad and too abstract to arrive as a fully-formed horror classic. Instead, the film works best as a more intimate study of identity crisis and body horror, one elevated by the craft of the people involved.

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