There’s an amazingly gross practical effect about 20 seconds into Possessor, which bodes well for what’s to come. Created by the spawn of Cronenberg, the film is certainly Cronenbergian but it’s also something different, something new, fresh, and incredibly deviant. Possessor is a film that crawls under your skin, rips your face off from the inside out, and proudly wears it as its own. It’s immediately compelling, sucking you in like a vacuum before spitting you back out as though you meant nothing in the first place. It will involve, disgust, and repel you, but it’s nothing short of absolutely extraordinary.
The first face we see is Black and female, which is always nice, particularly in the year of our Dark Lord 2020. She’s not the main character, at least not literally, but this young woman (played by Gabrielle Graham) is being controlled by Andrea Riseborough’s terrifyingly opaque Tasya, who’s been tasked with using her body to kill somebody else. The murder itself, which forms the basis of the film’s thrilling opening sequence, is violent, the number of stabs verging on Rob Zombie’s Halloween territory, but it’s a good amuse-bouche for the sickness that infects every corner of this gritty, grotty, and gorgeous little film.
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Riseborough looks otherworldly, the exact opposite of her ethereal Goth in Mandy, with a shock of white-blonde hair that bleeds into her pallid complexion. She’s almost extra-terrestrial, comparable in looks to the great Tilda Swinton except comparing the two in any real sense would do both women a great disservice. Riseborough’s hair is so white and her eyes are so black that it’s a crime she’s only getting to flex her muscles in horror movies now, when clearly they’ve been calling out to her for decades.
Tasya is human, of course, at least in a literal sense but years of earning a living by killing others as other people has robbed her of her essential humanity. She even pratices how to behave normally before seeing her young son and estranged ex. Emulating behaviors is what she does, after all, and Tasya is very good at it, something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by her boss, Girder (a quietly ruthless Jennifer Jason Leigh with heavy bangs), who encourages Tasya to push herself far beyond her breaking point.
The premise of Possessor surrounds Tasya’s latest job, which is “possessing” a man named Colin (Christopher Abbott, a standout in the lively Piercing who’s understandably more muted here) so she can kill his girlfriend, Ava (British actress Tuppence Middleton) and her father, John, played with oozing menace by the legendary Sean Bean (“I’m not sure he’s human,” Ava quips of dear old Dad). Things don’t necessarily go awry so much as the fabric of reality begins to slowly decay, with Tasya-as-Colin struggling to keep control.
Compared to Tenet’s mind-bending bollocks, however, Possessor is ruthlessly easy to follow and understand – too easy, in fact, as writer-director Brandon Cronenberg lures us into a world that looks like the near-future but might actually just be Canada, wrong-footing us with each seedy new revelation. Crucially, though, the film is tough to work out. Cronenberg trusts the material enough not to bombard us with score, but what music does exist, in the form of Jim Williams’ compositions, is sumptuous.
The movie has a similar look to his father’s stuff, Karim Hussain’s cinematography cold and clinical to suit the environment, but Possessor exists in a world that’s almost too close to our own, one that feels simultaneously futuristic and queasily realistic. The screen is often blue-tinged, or flooded with pastel pinks, with hints of reds and yellow popping up here and there too. The tears in Tasya’s reality are represented as little glitches, so quick you almost miss them. Cronenberg showcases remarkable visual style here; his film is stunningly disgusting, like glittery vomit.
Possessor is a masterpiece of depravity, loaded with sex, nudity, and writhing bodies (it’s worth noting women and men are equally represented, at least in the uncut version). As Tasya slowly loses her sense of self, Cronenberg begins to question the whole idea of identity – something that, funnily enough, another Canadian filmmaker, Kurtis David Harder, tackled less effectively (and with much less of a budget) in the similarly-themed InControl. Where that film focused on teenage obsession, this one takes a hammer to the very nature of humanity. The standout moment finds Tasya removing a smushy head mask and wearing her own face as Colin. It’s stomach-churning and leaves a major impression, so it’s unsurprising the marketing material for the film features this particular image prominently, but there’s tons of nightmare-inducing stuff at play elsewhere too.
Tasya’s kid’s dancing pilot doll might actually be the most terrifying bloody thing in the whole movie, the most bizarre toy for a child to willingly keep close since the clown doll in Poltergeist. Even the more banal stuff is disquieting, odd, cerebral, and creepy – there’s no sense of comfort in the world Cronenberg conjures up here. Considering the heady ideas at play, he handles all of the disparate elements with surgical precision. Possessor is gleefully sadistic and viciously violent but Riseborough’s understated performance is an anchor amidst the carnage. It’s just a shame her character spends so much time as Colin, which means Abbott is onscreen more often, though thankfully he’s very convincing in the dual role.
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There’s a nihilistic strain of hopelessness to Possessor that many may find alienating, but go with it and you’ll be rewarded with an understandably messy, bloody journey into a fractured mind that begs for repeat viewings to fully embrace its many dark pleasures. Stunning.
WICKED RATING: 10/10