The trailers for Possessor proudly announce an uncut version of the film will play in theaters. This is not necessarily a good thing, as studio and producer interference can improve upon a filmmaker’s most indulgent impulses. Just look at any unrated version of a raunchy comedy: the new stuff falls flat, getting in the way of narrative or comic rhythm. There is nothing funny in Possessor, although it suffers from the same fate as most uncut versions. There is a tighter, better movie than what comes out in theaters this weekend.
The film is written and directed by Brandon Cronenberg, son of David, and they share many of the same obsessions. It uses body horror to explore psychological ideas, and contains gore so extreme that only seasoned genre fans will stomach it. What Brandon lacks, unfortunately, is David’s curiosity or perception into human nature. Few of the characters in Possessor have any recognizable impulses, except for greed, lust, and rage. That is enough to make a brutal film – indeed, the violence can be grisly – although the brutality is only in service of itself.
Andrea Riseborough plays Tasya, a corporate assassin who specializes in a unique form of espionage. Through elaborate new technology, she is able to project her consciousness into another person. The idea is that there is no connection between her and her targets. Her latest target is John (Sean Bean), the CEO of a powerful data company, and she uses Colin (Christopher Abbott) as her surrogate. Colin is the new boyfriend of John’s daughter, so it should be easy to infiltrate the target’s circle. Things go awry, as they must, when Colin’s mind clashes with Tasya’s.
Taking and losing control – and what that can do to your psyche – clearly disturbs Cronenberg. The best scenes in Possessor are abstract, psychedelic explorations of that idea. The imagery is surreal and disturbing: Tasya’s face stretches into shreds, then reforms with Colin’s. Then there is a transgressive love scene, one where Tasya – while controlling Colin’s body – has sex with his girlfriend. The clash of physicality, emotion, and lust clash in bizarre ways, it is here that Cronenberg honors his father’s legacy. Abbott and Riseborough are good choices for this material precisely because their performances are so grave and deadpan. Riseborough was also in Mandy, a film with a somewhat similar aesthetic, so maybe she’s the go-to actor for over the top action.
Unfortunately, ideas interest Cronenberg more than character, story, or suspense. There is little tension in Possessor because Cronenberg builds each scene around maximalist sensation, and not whether Tasya will accomplish her mission. This is never more apparent than when “Colin” murders John. Come to think of it, “murder” does not come close to what transpires on screen. John is brutalized, tortured, defiled, and mutilated. Blood and viscera shoots from his body, as if Cronenberg really, really hates the cliché wherein Sean Bean dies in each movie role. This scene is the movie’s centerpiece, and its ideas are buried under John’s twisted flesh.
Maybe Tasya feels liberated by her job, and controlling someone else leads her to dark places. Maybe she hates herself for what she does to Colin/John, and takes it out on her target. Possessor leaves little room for conventional morality, so all we have is Cronenberg’s commitment to his vision. That is enough material for a short film, not a feature, so for every transgressive moment, there is another padded scene where Colin and Tasya internally fight for control. Little is at stake because there is a marked disinterest in these characters. Even the climax amounts to little more than a cheap provocation. Still, there is some thematic irony here: Cronenberg’s exerts dispassionate control over his actors, just like Tasya controls Colin. It is interesting to consider, although it does little to make me care.
There are other interesting scenes in Possessor that unfold like a NC17 version of Black Mirror. Colin’s job involves using an Alexa-like assistant to spy people in their bedrooms, observing what products they buy (you can guess what they do when they think others are not looking). There is a subplot where Tasya’s profession creates a dissociative quality in her personal life. Cronenberg depicts these stories with marked disinterest, as if he cannot wait until he gets to the “good” stuff. Audiences and horror fans may remember the most extreme moments of their beloved films, but what surrounds these extremities are what make the film worth remembering. David Cronenberg understands that, and there is time for Brandon – a gifted stylist – to remember that lesson.
Editor’s note: The only way to see Possessor is in a movie theater. Our reviews are not tacit endorsements for going to the movies. We feel that criticism is more than a consumer recommendation for an entertainment product. It is a debate about art, ideally providing insight and context, and that discussion should continue. If you make the safer decision to skip theaters for now, we hope you return here when the film is available on streaming platforms.