A film about being in someone else’s skin, that leaves you uncomfortable in your own
Possessor is the kind of grim indie fare that feels destined to become a cult classic. A compelling narrative, raw and unnerving performances, and world building and imagery that are unshakable after lodging in themselves in the mind. The twisted tale tees off with by introducing a woman (Gabrielle Graham) sat in a hotel room, plunging a metal connector into her skull. Squeamishly pushing the device past hair and tissue. Soon after, she calmly struts into a sharply lit restaurant, approaches a man, and brutally stabs him to death. She picks up a dropped gun, places it in her mouth, and after struggling to pull the trigger, is shot by police who arrive on the scene.
Cut to a dark room and a woman (Andrea Riseborough) disengages from a machine not too dissimilar from that glimpsed minutes earlier, job done, and begins the shaky process of acclimatization back to her own body, and her life. Soon after, this agent, Tasya Vos, is tasked with her new target Colin (Christopher Abbott), a man engaged to the daughter (Tuppence Middleton) of an rich CEO (Sean Bean). Her assignment, eliminate them both, and finish off Colin to tie up any loose ends, so the family business falls into the hands of their client.
The body swap premise has been played out previously in film, but more-so for comedy. In this instance it is a violating and horrifying thing, in both execution and intent. A nameless agency that specializes in body hijacking in the name of hi-tech assassinations, an alternate world that feels coldly abstract from our own. The concept is compelling, but thinly sketched. Mechanisms and motive are not given, the world around them is glimpsed through a fog rather than built up. The real meat to the film comes from within the characters. When we first meet Vos, it is a struggle to reassert herself after the mission. She returns home to her estranged family, reciting lines and cadence, requiring a sense of self. Clearly shaken, bereft of memories and clarity for a short while. It is not long before another target is identified, one that seems to come too soon after the last. We see her study the Colin, practice his mannerisms and way of talking, before she is jacked into his mind. While possessed, we start to see the remnants of her host bleed into her psyche, a dance begins between the two souls, vying not just for control, but for existence.
Much of the film relies on the craft of the two leads and they more than deliver. Riseborough is one of the most magnetic actors working today and shows off a chameleonic shift from a predatory state to one of a nurturing mother and back again. It feels a shame to have her spend any amount of time housed in a machine or skin of another character. Christopher Abbott likewise embodies a haunted character, chillingly teasing fragments of the person left behind, clawing away under the skin Vos now inhabits. It’s also worth mentioning Jennifer Jason Leigh, playing Tasya’s handler and boss Girder makes the most of limited screentime and only adds to the allure of the piece.
While Possessor lands an undeniable punch of unease, there is often a lack of clarity to the narrative. Granted that feeds into the intended disorientation, but its leaves the film occasionally hollow, with the latter half perhaps not mined as effectively as it could have been. While the world and story feel loose and vivid, the more violent sequences come more sharply into focus, a compositional approach that belies true Cronenberg’s predilections towards crafting discomfort. Such was the case with his 2012 debut feature Antiviral. Grisly from the off, the film-maker holds onto disturbing sights that one second longer than needed. harsh, jarring spikes amidst a chilly tone and aesthetic. The possession technology itself feels truly invasive. Lo-fi, analog setups, crude shunts into the mind rather than a precise instrument. Its lurid work from prosthetics supervisor Daniel Martin. The hardware is coupled coupled to psychotropic animation sequences depicting the process of transmogrification. Faces melt and meld, a haunting mashup of visage and voice, a prelude to the psychological battle about to commence. Possessor is a film about being in someone else’s skin, but one that seems more intent on leaving you uncomfortable in your own. An uneasy and unforgettable slice of sci-fi that thrillingly offers another glimpse at the unnerving craft of Brandon Cronenberg.
Possessor will be released theatrically and select in drive-ins on October 9th