By Peg Aloi
This brilliant film is both an intriguing commentary on the nature of performance and a frightening allegory about how technology, at the service of our worst fantasies and urges, is capable of destroying our humanity.
Possessor, directed by Brandon Cronenberg. Streaming on Amazon Prime and elsewhere.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that Brandon Cronenberg, son of admired horror director David Cronenberg, is, after two features, proving to be an accomplished horror filmmaker in his own right. As I watched Possessor, the movie reminded me of a very finely wrought episode of Black Mirror, the brilliant dystopian anthology series created by Charlie Brooker that migrated from BBC to Netflix.
Indeed, the protagonist, played by Andrea Riseborough, is eerily similar to one she played in an especially chilling episode of the series (Crocodile), though this film is a wholly original and absorbing story. It also contains some of the bloodiest and most disturbing violence I’ve seen in recent memory. This isn’t mayhem of the over-the-top slasher variety which can be mitigated by thinking to oneself: well this isn’t really happening in real life and this is a genre where there is usually a lot of blood squirting around. (Of course, I am speaking for myself here.) Here the screen is filled with human-on-human violence that is horrific and harrowing; perhaps all the more so because its context fits within realistic realms 0f technological and psychological manipulation. If it sounds like a tall order going in, it is. Possessor is layered and subtle and demands an attentive viewer.
The film begins with Holly (Gabrielle Graham), a young African-American woman standing before a mirror. She inserts a needle into her scalp. Then she seems to be practicing facial expressions: she smiles, then begins to cry. She then arrives at what looks like a huge catered event in a hotel: her supervisor and co-workers are all dressed in bright turquoise tracksuits. Are they servers? Performers? It’s not clear, but they’re lining up to begin their duties at this gala. Within minutes, Holly suddenly begins to brutally — and I mean brutally — stab one of the guests (who turns out to be a prominent lawyer). Next, she pulls out a pistol, holds it to her chin, and cries “pull me out.” Then she tries to pull the trigger but she can’t seem to do it. Soon enough the police show up and finish the task for her.
Immediately following this harrowing prologue, we cut to a cozy office. Tasya Voss (Riseborough) is being interviewed by Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is asking her to identify objects in a box and what they mean to her. Some of them are objects from her childhood. Voss (as everyone calls her) passes the test and Girder is pleased. Girder mentions the offer of a new job will pay handsomely. Gradually we learn that Voss is a high tech assassin for a company that can implant a device into a host’s brain. The device allows the killer to take over the host’s body, who then murders their target. The host is then dispatched via a suicide order. This leaves a cold trail and no answers. It’s ingenious, really, and icily efficient.
But the work has negative impacts on the company’s employees. Girder asks Voss, before the meeting ends, why she stabbed her target instead of using the pistol she was given. Voss shrugs and mumbles about it being “more in character.” She mentions her family, and Girder gently reminds Voss that she is separated from her husband. Apparently, the mental and physical strain of her job is causing Voss to experience emotional stress and to occasionally become untethered from reality. And yet, she seems compelled to keep taking on assignments.
The film’s central plot arc follows Voss as she prepares for her next gig. The “host” is a young man (Christopher Abbott) who is dating the daughter (Tuppence Middleton, another Black Mirror alumna) of the CEO of a massive tech company (Sean Bean), who is the target. The victims are inevitably paragons of wealth and influence; hence the cyber secrecy required for dispatching them. Cronenberg’s narrative observes — in an excruciatingly close yet disjointed way — the workings of this assassins guild: its glamorous technology, its members’ cool-headed detachment from their double-edged kills.
But this is more than a speculative fiction about sophisticated murder for hire. Possessor is a character study of the kinds of people who want to do this kind of work. Voss has a husband and young son, yet she lives apart from them, concerned about the mental and psychic stress of her job. Before an assignment, she has to rehearse how to speak simple phrases in a convincing manner: it is as if she’s slowly forgetting how to be a human being. The scenes that detail the melding of Voss’s mind with that of the host are dreamy, strange, and surreal: flesh dissolving, melting, bodies disintegrating. In order to kill effectively, it seems, Voss’s very being must be dismantled. These feverish dream sequences meld nicely with the film’s elegant cinematography by Karim Hussain.
Possessor is not easy to watch, but contains a captivating beauty, even amidst its extreme violence. The cast is excellent, especially Christopher Abbott who plays a subtle yet complex role: a man whose body and mind are taken over by a female killer. Riseborough is electrifying as a woman who willfully loses herself in her role as a killer; her translucent skin seems to pulse with impatient, cold-blooded abandon. This is an actress whose work never fails to impress, but I’d go a step further. No other performer working today in film infuses her (often dark) roles with such vivid, haunting precision. And this skill is at the service of a brilliant story that is both an intriguing commentary on the nature of performance and a frightening allegory about how technology, at the service of our worst fantasies and urges, is capable of destroying our humanity.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.