Brandon Cronenberg’s second film Possessor tells the story of Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), an assassin who kills while she is electronically possessing the body’s of others. The process makes it seem as though the person whose body she occupied was the murderer. It’s a fascinating combination of elements that come together wonderfully thanks to Cronenberg’s strong direction and knockout performances from Riseborouch and Christopher Abbott.
Possessor begins with Vos doing a job in the body of Holly (Gabrielle Graham). She successfully kills her target. The next step is for her to die by self-inflicted gunshot so Vos can be returned to her original body—which is strapped to a table with a user-interface mask over its face miles away—but she can’t pull the trigger. She gags on the gun before finding another way out.
Her handler, Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), walks Vos through a ritual that will help her return to her body. She smells her grandfather’s pipe then expresses guilt over the butterfly she killed and mounted as a girl. Vos lies her way through the exit interview before going AWOL to see her estranged husband and their son. She returns soon after, not field ready but going out for a big project anyway. She’s smoothly inserted into Colin Tate (Christopher Abbot), but something goes wrong. She can’t maintain control.
Possessor is both about Vos slowly losing herself after doing too many missions in too short a time and her struggle with Tate over his body. The film visually represents their struggles with a series of wax melts and montages to represent the physical process of the possession. Each is excellent, communicating both the fragile nature of the connection and how the Vos and Tates are being mixed into one being. The overlap of their personalities is best brought to life by the film’s terrifying cover image, Tate wearing a sagging mask of Vos’s face.
Riseborough’s and Abbott’s excellent performances ground the trippiness of the possession montages in the real world. Riseborough, for her part, plays a woman who’s losing herself to having spent too much time living as others. She studies her targets for weeks, imitating what they say, learning their cadence. Her performance is at its strongest when Vos comes back to herself and has to relearn how she herself speaks.
Abbott and Riseborough are essentially playing the same character in two different bodies because Riseborough’s character is possessing Abbott. That means Abbott has to play both Tate and Vos playing Tate. It’s a double role, which Abbott handles masterfully, tackling the challenge of slowly bringing the two personalities closer together with aplomb.
While they struggle over Tate’s body, Vos is also struggling with her identity. She has flashbacks to the people she’s killed as she tries to spend time with her family. The gore in these flashbacks, and throughout the film, is particularly nasty. It’s one of the many elements of Possessor that calls back to the Ben Wheatley (who was thanked in Possessor’s credit) film Kill List. The kills in both films are brutal. Vos never stabs just once, and the camera rarely turns away as she drives a weapon into her victim repeatedly, not stopping until long after they should’ve died. It’s the stomach-turning kind of violence that will make you regret eating during the movie.
The viscera in Possessor serves a purpose: it puts viewers into the same uncomfortable place Vos is. When she has the flashback and blood spurts out of a neck wound, it’s not hard to see why she can’t get the image out of her head. The intensity of the gore reflects the deteriorated state of Vos’s mind.
Beyond all of those plot details, Possessor feels like a film with an infinite number of interpretations. It could be about the way technology has changed human sexuality—each time Vos loses her electronic control of Tate, it’s after he’s been aroused. It could be commenting on the way technology is changing our lives, taking away the things that make us human. It could be read as an allegory for the way method actors sometimes have trouble returning to the selves they were before their performance. Possessor has a thematic richness that defies a cut and dry interpretation.
Despite what your high school English class may have taught you about how the blue curtains means the character is sad, the symbols in themes of great stories aren’t so simple. Possessor follows in the tradition of Eraserhead, Zulawski’s Possession, Tetsuo: The Iron Man and so many other bizarre genre films that are metaphorically rich and wide open for interpretation. It also manages to have a straightforward story. There aren’t many films that manage to do both of those things, which makes Possessor the kind of film that you’ll want to start from the beginning as soon as you finish.
This Blu-ray includes the uncut version of Possessor, promotional materials, and a set of deleted scenes, three “Behind the Scenes” featurettes. The “Behind the Scenes” feature interviews with Cronenberg, Riseborough, Tate, and other members of the cast and crew. They explain how they achieved some of the film’s incredible effects—nearly all practical, and some never done before. Riseborough and Tate discuss how they built Vos’ character together as well. It’s nearly an hour of bonus content that will enrich your understanding and appreciation of Possessor.
Wicked Rating – 9/10
Director: Brandon Cronenberg
Writers: Brandon Cronenberg
Stars: Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Tuppence Middleton, Sean Bean
Release: On Demand now, on 4k, Blu-ray, and DVD on December 8, 2020.
Studio/Production Co: Rhombus Media, Rook Films, Particular Crowd
Sub-genre: Sci-fi, Psychological Thriller