You have to hand it to the Cronenbergs – they know their brand. David, the elder Cronenberg, is already iconic in the realm of “body horror” thanks to The Fly, Videodrome, Scanners, and many others. Now his son Brandon has taken the mantle and delivered the buzzy 2020 film Possessor – a nasty little flick if there ever was one.
The concept is great. A corporate assassin uses sophisticated technology to insert her consciousness into other people and use them to carry out hits. During a particularly perilous assignment, things go sideways and she ends up in a mental battle over control of a single body. The cool thing about this premise is that there’s no tacky, condescending scene where the consciousness-controlling process is over-explained. It’s made perfectly clear exactly what’s happening just by showing it, with little bits of shop talk adding to the believability. Literally inhabiting the body of a different person naturally results in dissociative effects on the mind, and this drives the tension of the plot.
Although Andrea Riseborough – the otherworldly, Tilda Swinton-esque title character from Mandy – is the star, she spends the majority of the movie inhabiting the body of a man played by not-Kit Harington (Christopher Abbott). And although he’s got more screen time than Riseborough, the knowledge of who’s really in control never leaves your attention. It feels like you’re watching a woman disguised as a man, and even when the two minds start alternating consciousness you never become completely disorientated, which is a testament to impressive directing. Also, Jennifer Jason Leigh delivers another quiet, creepy, sinister performance as Riseborough’s boss. An odd niche she’s found for herself. Sean Bean rounds out the cast as the assassination target. When you need someone to die in a movie, we all know who you call…
Of course, we have to talk about the gore and body horror. Actually, most of what counts as “body horror” in this movie is entirely hallucinations – visual representations of two minds literally fighting for control of one body. But then there are the assassinations themselves. For whatever reason (possibly a sign of her disintegrating mental state) the main character usually opts to stab or bludgeon her targets to death rather than use the much more efficient work-supplied pistol. This is where the gruesome special effects work truly shines. Proceed with caution is you’re not great with gore.
The ending is pretty bleak too, so I wouldn’t really call this a fun time at the movies. But it’s skillfully directed, written, and acted, with gnarly special effects and a tense, intriguing premise. So I’d say the Cronenberg torch is safely passed.