NOTE: This was originally reviewed at Sundance 2020 when it screened under the title POSSESSOR.
PLOT: A corporate spy (Andrea Riseborough) uses brain implant technology to commit gruesome assassinations by inhabiting the bodies of the people her targets are closest to. Her latest assignment, to kill a technology giant (Sean Bean), becomes complicated by the fact that the mind of the man she chooses to inhabit (Christopher Abbott) is more resilient than her typical target and the two battle for control over his mind and body.
REVIEW: If there was ever any doubt that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree for David Cronenberg’s son, Brandon, POSSESSOR should prove definitively that he is indeed his father’s son and a top-shelf director in his own right. Highly reminiscent of some of his father’s work, particularly SCANNERS and EXISTENZ (casting Jennifer Jason Leigh in a key role couldn’t have been a coincidence), POSSESSOR is an uncompromisingly gruesome sci-fi flick that proved to be a sleeper out of this year’s Sundance and seems primed to put Brandon Cronenberg on the map.
The premise is especially intriguing, with the brain implant technology such a great hook it could easily serve as the launching pad for more stories from this universe. Andrea Riseborough is an atypical protagonist, although due to the hook she has a lot less screen time than Christopher Abbott, whose performance is especially good here. Riseborough’s Tasha Voss is a sociopath assassin, with no attempt made to make her sympathetic. She’s shown to have a family, but she’s grown detached from them and even fantasizes about killing them, with her sanity hanging by only a loose thread. This is made obvious by the way she kills, opting to use blunt or edged weapons rather than the gun she’s provided with.
Cronenberg goes all-in on the gore, with some of the most gruesome shots in recent memory, including, in one stomach-churning scene, a fireplace poker going through an eyeball in close-up. It’s so gory this seems sure to get an NC-17 or an unrated release once it comes out in the U.S, although I believe it’s already set for a mainstream release in Canada, where, presumably, it’ll go out intact.
Riseborough is great, but in many ways, this is Abbott’s show. He’s long been someone to watch based on his work with Lena Dunham on “Girls” (his episode “The Panic in Central Park” is one of the best), George Clooney’s “Catch-22” and (especially) the underrated JAMES WHITE. Here, his talents are more apparent than ever with him having to create two distinct characters – one Riseborough’s victim, the neer-do-well coke dealer/boyfriend of Sean Bean’s tech mogul daughter (Tuppence Middleton) who’s surprisingly resilient mentally (and is the closest we have to a hero in some ways) and the other as Riseborough herself inhabiting his body. It’s a powerhouse performance and if this movie is widely seen (as it deserves to be) it could kick his career up a couple of notches.
Jennifer Jason Leigh also has a part that nods at EXISTENZ, with this, in some ways, almost playing like a sequel/spinoff, with her the head of the shadowy assassin for hire company that employs Riseborough’s Voss. Cronenberg’s made a beautiful looking film that, while thematically close to his father’s work, is strikingly different in terms of the visuals. DP Karim Hussain (who also shot Cronenberg’s last film, ANTIVIRAL, and HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN) has made a more overtly stylish film than the elder Cronenberg’s, which have a somewhat more industrial look. It’s a nice touch as it makes the work distinct in its own way, and surely it feels like a confident, slick second feature.
While POSSESSOR may not get a wide theatrical release in the States, it’s something that deserves to be on the radar of genre fans and gorehounds. Even if this kind of thing isn’t usually your cup of tea you might be won over by the premise and terrific execution, as well as the amazing performances by Riseborough and Abbott. It was a late Sundance surprise for me and a world I’m eager to revisit.