Written and Directed by: Brandon Cronenberg
Starring: Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, and Jennifer Jason Leigh
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Pull me out."
2020 has been illuminating in innumerably horrific ways, but the most horrific revelation came early during the COVID-19 pandemic, when several state and local governments ceded to a deadly virus in the name of the economy. Following a lockdown that lasted as little as six weeks, many businesses—some essential, some very much not— sent people back to work because we just couldn’t sacrifice the economy. That this was even a debate during the onset of the pandemic was blood-curdling enough. Seeing it enacted brought the sobering realization that this is all we are to a certain class: a workforce meant to grease the wheels of capitalism, just husks of flesh that are only good for their productivity. While most reasonable people were aghast at the rising number of infections and deaths, some couldn’t look past plunging profit margins and dwindling stock returns. I was lucky to be in a position to lock down for several months before being sent back to work, again mostly at the behest of officials who insisted schools must be open so families could go back to work in a feeble attempt to return to normalcy, prompting me to wonder if this is all I’m good for: providing a warm body so the money could keep flowing.
Brandon Cronenberg couldn’t have had these specific anxieties on his mind when he hatched Possessor, which made its world premiere at Sundance back in January, when we all lived in another world, oblivious to the looming disruption. And yet it’s impossible not to see this sophomore effort as an eerily prescient piece of work, one that finds Cronenberg channeling his father’s preoccupation with body horror into a tale that reduces blood and bone to unwitting vehicles for corporate subterfuge. It’s a movie about mergers and acquisitions painted on a canvas of hijacked flesh, haywire minds, and bleak cityscapes that explores the nature of identity, particularly how our jobs often play an unnecessarily large role in determining who we are—or, more accurately, who we allow ourselves to be.
Set in a strikingly analog 2008, Possessor opens with a mystifying political assassination. A woman named Holly Bergman (Gabrielle Graham) cozies up to a bigwig lawyer at a swanky lounge before gutting him, spilling an almost comical amount of blood very in plain sight of an aghast crowd. After staining the floors with crimson, she puts a gun in her own mouth but can’t bring herself to pull the trigger. A group of police show no hesitation, however, and are quick to gun her down, leaving a bewildered audience with the incendiary sight of a black woman being riddled with bullets. We soon learn that Holly has been victimized here, her body possessed by Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), who awakens in a dimly lit facility, where she unhooks her brain from the mechanism that allows her to commandeer other bodies.
During a debriefing with her vaguely sinister superior (Jennifer Jason Leigh), we piece together that she’s been at this a long time: taking shadowy assignments at the behest of corporate overlords, losing a little piece of herself with each commissioned murder. Estranged from her own husband and child, she has to rehearse what she’ll say to them during an awkward, tense dinner. It’s only a brief reprieve because this work keeps coming, this time in the form of a high-profile client that wants his wealthy stepfather John Parse (Sean Bean) knocked off so he can take control of the company, a hostile takeover that will in turn benefit Tasya’s superiors. Her mission is to take control of Parse’s daughter’s fiancé and orchestrate a public spat that leaves everyone involved dead, clearing the way for an easy inheritance.
But this assignment—possibly more than previous ones—will not be easy for Tasya. Riseborough has always had an interesting screen presence defined by a distance that’s almost akin to a blankness that Cronenberg effectively harnesses here. There’s the sense that the life has slowly been drained from this woman, whose consciousness seems to have retained the vestigial memories of the minds she’s consumed, giving her a metaphysical phantom limb. A glimmer of empathy and resistance lurks in her eyes, shading her performance with a hint of tragedy: here’s a woman who has lost herself to a job that treats her as a means to a grisly end. Her superior offers support, but there’s something patronizing about how she’s setting her up to eventually take her place. She’s just a cog in a well-oiled machine, and it turns out this last job might also be ironing out those kinks that keep her from performing her job.
Tasya’s possession of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbot), the ill-fated fiancé, unfolds in two acts. The first finds her adjusting to this new skin, going through the routine of slinking into the role without being detected. She becomes privy to intimate details, like the affair Colin is carrying on with one of his fiancee’s friends (Kaniehtiio Horn). Fittingly, she discovers that his job is invasive, as he peers into unsuspecting peoples’ homes, capturing their wardrobe and homemaking choices as part of a data mining operation that only seems slightly less soul-deadening than Tasya’s job. Possessor is not a flattering depiction of the 21st century workforce, here envisioned as a bleak, homogeneous hellscape. The type of dystopian visions that flourished decades ago now just feel like reality.
It should come as no surprise that this stretch of the film unfolds at a clinical, Cronenbergian remove. Moments of passion and sex warp into strage trips into the ether of two psyches warring for the same space when Colin attempts to reassert control of his body. Violent outbursts are inevitable (especially considering the film officially touts itself as Possessor: Uncut on home video), as bodies are bludgeoned and mangled beyond recognition. Tasya’s savagery doesn’t reveal a disdain so much as it reveals her indifference to flesh: after all, for her, bodies are just empty husks waiting to be hijacked, so it follows that she callously and brutally disposes of her targets. Referring to them as “victims” would be a misnomer. They’re simply a task to complete, and she carries out the job with the same vigor of an office drone filing reports.
The second act of her possession—which charts the grisly fallout of her completed task—spirals into further violence when the conflict over Colin’s body becomes more pronounced. Unable to resurface in her own body, she becomes trapped in her host, who starts to do his own intruding. With the tables suddenly turned, Tasya finds this body reclaimed against her will, leading to an ethereal showdown between two minds. The climax of Possessor is a jangled knot of warring motivations, shadowy manipulation, and unsettling ambiguity culminating in a bitter irony: Tasya, the possessor, is a shell of her former self, a stranger in her own skin. Most unsettling is the possibility that this is what she’s always wanted: by the end, it’s hard to say who’s controlling Colin’s body during the ghastly, climactic bloodshed. What isn’t indisputable is that Tasya’s overlords are the clear winners. They certainly get what they want: a cooperative drone, now stripped of self-doubt and empathy.
Cronenberg doesn’t exactly dwell on the sociopolitical or metaphysical aspects of Possessor, at least not in the ways his father’s work does (one has to wonder if the notion of warring consciousnesses doesn’t come natural to the filmmaking son of a legendary filmmaker). It’s mostly a cool sci-fi premise brought to life here with gory, gripping panache with just enough of an undercurrent rumbling beneath the surface to give it weight. Ultimately, it’s hard to ignore that Possession is a potent film about the perils of work, particularly when you’re a grunt working on behalf of superiors who don’t give a shit about anything other than the bottom line—and if it takes blood to scrawl that bottom line, then so be it. Doesn’t matter if it’s your blood or someone else’s—either way, capitalism will have its pound of flesh. I can’t see Possessor being something I’d consider a “favorite” (the climax takes such a grim turn that it’d be hard to stomach repeat viewings), but there’s no denying it’s one of the definitive movies of 2020.
Possessor: Uncut is now available on Blu-ray and 4K UHD from Well Go Entertainment.
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