Possessor (2020)

*. To get the obvious out of the way, this is the second feature for director Brandon Cronenberg (coming eight years after his debut Antiviral), and comparisons to his father’s oeuvre are inevitable. I think Brandon was actually having fun with this. I mean, the main character’s name is Tasya Vos, which must have come out of one of his dad’s old notebooks. Throw in some artistic production elements (lab equipment, office furniture) that make for a really bizarre mix of design and technology, a mysterious quasi-medical institute up to no good, and a splash of body horror, and presto! you’re back in the early ’80s watching this on VHS.
*. Actually, the feel of the movie is deliberately retro, which may be another nod to Cronenberg’s classic horror period. I think the cars go back to the ’70s or even earlier, and even the high-tech, like the full-wall TV screens feel like an homage to the future that we saw in Fahrenheit 451.

*. The plot is simple on the surface and muddled in the details. Tasya (Andrea Riseborough) is a field agent for a neo-Murder Inc. organization. What happens is that likely candidates are kidnapped and a jack put in their skull that an agent then uses to enter their consciousness and control them. They (the agent) then kill the target the organization has been paid to assassinate and destroy the meat puppet just as they’re extracted from the host body. So the target is dead and the host commits suicide, meaning there are no loose ends to tidy up. Presumably even the skull jack is destroyed when the agent forces the host to stick a gun in its mouth and blow its brains out the back of its head.
*. As a premise I don’t think that’s anything special, though it’s not bad. Of course things get complicated as Tasya starts to come undone when she goes bodyhopping, culminating in a messy adventure when she jacks into Colin (Christopher Abbott), someone selected as the perfect candidate to kill Sean Bean, a jerky tech billionaire (I know, I know: there are no other kinds) with really poor home security (though this is Toronto, so he probably figured he was safe). Poor Colin. I guess he’s a bit of a heel, but we still end up feeling sorry for him.
*. The movie is built around a number of interlocking conflicts. There’s a conflict between Tasya and her controller, a cool lady named Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who is beginning to suspect Tasya’s loyalty to the corporation and suitability for purpose. Then there is the conflict between Tasya and Colin as they fight for control of his body. And finally there is the conflict within Tasya as she looks to either hold on to or jettison what’s left of her humanity.

*. The cast helps. I’ve always liked Jennifer Jason Leigh and miss not seeing her in more. Andrea Riseborough is often wasted, but she’s well cast here as she really does strung-out well and the juxtaposition of her slight frame and icy-killer personality is great. Christopher Abbott is also well cast, as he always looks vulnerable. Mia Wasikowska had no trouble handling him in Piercing, and he was supposed to be a killer in that movie.
*. While Abbott is fine, his character, Colin, is less so. He’s a cokehead toy-boy with zero back story, for starters. But after a while I started to think Cronenberg was intentionally making him out to be a bit of a comic figure to enlist our sympathy. Surely that’s the point of the vaping. Does anybody cool vape? And what on earth does his job consist of anyway? They don’t have software that can register the drapes in people’s homes? It seems absurd. And why does he have to wear those welder’s goggles?
*. Even the mask Tasya wears while jacked, while evoking something of the facehugger in Alien, has something silly about it. It’s like the face-mask that Colin pulls off Tasya in his dream/vision in being sinister and creepy but ridiculous at the same time. I think Cronenberg is aware of his balance and it’s one of the things I like about Possessor. It’s playful without being ironic or disarming.

*. I mentioned though that the story is muddled in the details. Why does Tasya insist on getting messy by stabbing or hacking or clubbing her victims to death instead of just shooting them? is she that much of a sadist or psychopath? Or is she just having a breakdown? Does Colin take the chip out? How does he even know about its presence? And why would Tasya still be in control of him then?
*. All of these questions climax in the film’s final conundrum, which is who is in control when Colin/Tasya pulls the trigger. I like that the movie is ambiguous here though, as the question of whether Tasya has agency or is conflicted or is just a pawn in Girder’s game is better left open. At first I was disappointed there wasn’t more of a twist, but I think the mystery we’re left with is rich enough.
*. Stylish, though I didn’t care much for the effects. There’s gore that plays with being over-the-top, in keeping with the rest of the movie’s sense of balancing horror and humour. I sort of wish this had been more inventive than just wading through floors covered in blood, and its artiness is maybe a bit much (the pattern of the blood in the final crime scene matching the wings of the butterfly), but it’s better to have too much of this than none at all.
*. A good movie that I had high hopes for and that didn’t disappoint. That’s something I don’t get to say very often. It does give the impression of a movie that Cronenberg might have thought about too much though, making it seem a bit overdetermined. It has that clinical, detached, even manipulative feel to it. But then, that’s the point it wants to make

15 thoughts on “Possessor (2020)

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Our reputation for being nice and polite is only a mask of repression, concealing an all-consuming, violent, and ultimately self-destructive hate directed at figures of authority.

      1. film-authority.com

        I can see that. Would it have happened without Cronenberg Sr? I guess there’s other chilly Canadian films like The Pxy, but in general the late 70’s seems a bit like a one man show…

      2. Alex Good Post author

        We were also the origin of much of the slasher horror of the brief golden age of those films. Happy Birthday to Me. Prom Night. Terror Train. My Bloody Valentine.

      3. Alex Good Post author

        Oh yeah, he’s a hero. Back then there really wasn’t much of an independent film industry in Canada. Some would say there still isn’t, and that we’re basically just a feeder system for Hollywood. Get noticed making small movies here, then go make it big south of the border (Denis Villeneuve being a good recent example). What people really admire about Cronenberg is that he stayed here.

      4. Alex Good Post author

        His career splits into an early (more horror) and later period, with Dead Ringers I think marking the divide as the end of the first phase. I really prefer the earlier stuff but I respect that he felt he needed to go in a different direction.

  1. Bookstooge

    I like the idea, horrifying as it is but some of the things you mention that are “sloppy” would really bother me. Plus the whole graphic gore. Whatever happened to tastefully orchestrated violence anyway?

    1. Alex Good

      Less demand for it nowadays, or ability to appreciate it. I didn’t find the gore here that disturbing, and it’s often presented with an artistic flourish. But they do have to start throwing some blood around at a couple of points.

      1. Alex Good Post author

        I don’t remember an actual pail of blood. But there’s blood all over the floor so that people are slipping and falling in it. Though this isn’t as over-the-top (and funny) as it was in the movie Revenge.

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