London Film Festival Review – Possessor

Brandon Cronenberg proves his mettle in balletic orgy of violence featuring stunning performances from Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbott.

A young black woman glides through an opulent night club, the camera tracking her every movement, lingering on the vivid bright blue of her tracksuit, the brilliant gold of the walls and a shining set of knives laid out against a bright red napkin. Seconds later the woman brutally attacks a businessman stabbing him to death. She is killed by the police in attendance as we cut to the pallid face of the real attacker, Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough). Tasya is a corporate assassin. The nameless organisation she works for has the technology to possess anyone in the world and make them do their bidding. Tasya is the company’s best assassin but her job is taking a significant toll on her. She is separated from her husband, estranged from her son and struggling to connect to either as her kills bleed through to her mundane family life. Her handler  (Jennifer Jason Leigh) sets her a new mission, possess Colin Tate (Christopher Abbot) the future son in law of boorish data mining company owner John Parse (Sean Bean in a wildly thankless role ) and use him to kill Parse. But things go very wrong and with Tasya & Colin wrestling for control of Colin’s psyche things descend into a nightmarish, orgy of violence.

Brandon Cronenberg’s debut effort Antiviral was a sporadically interesting if shallow tale of celebrity culture but he’s really entered the big leagues with Possessor, a visually stunning,  disquieting and operatically violent sci-fi horror. Possessor looks beautiful. Cronenberg washes the screen in psychedelic bursts of colour and jittery grotesque imagery. Split-screen and clever use of overlaid images means that we can see Tasya fighting to gain back control of Colin and her life in the process. This reaches its peak in the nightmare fuel sequence where Tasya and Colin battle for supremacy over Colin’s id while each wears a hideously distorted melted mask of Andrea’s Riseborough’s face- one eye blacked out and her features and mouth drooping in an obscene parody of human flesh. 

Like his father, before him, Cronenberg is fascinated by technology used for horrific ends. The (surprisingly low fi) tech here is the stuff of nightmares as it allows anyone to be possessed  – rendered into nothing more than a meat puppet to be used and murdered by the organisation to suit their own ends. The possessing technology is horrendous -all bone saws and neural implants and long, thin steel rods. However, just as unsettling is the data mining technology Parse uses, Colin’s job entails him sitting on a chair facing a wall, wearing an Occulus style headset which gives him the fake impression of a window with a view while he scrolls through people’s webcam footage in order to assess what sort of curtains or blinds they have. There is something so insidious about the tech we use every day being used against us like this, routinely invading our privacy for something as ridiculous as market research on curtains.

Cronenberg has assembled a fine cast. Andrea Riseborough is consistently brilliant (and yet oddly never quite gets her due for it) and is deeply unsettling here as Tasya. This is a woman who is visibly unravelling from the second we see her. Her blonde hair and pale features make her look utterly bloodless here, a facsimile of a human being who has to repeatedly practice greeting her son and husband as she has no concept anymore of how to emotionally connect to them. Possessor would make an interesting double feature with the Black Mirror episode Crocodile which features an equally strong Riseborough performance and which mines somewhat similar themes. We never know quite know what Tasya is going to do next and this unpredictability cranks the tension to almost unbearable levels.

Riseborough is backed by a superbly reptilian performance from Jennifer Jason Leigh who exudes steely, faux maternal concern as she supports Tasya determined to keep her prize asset focused on her task. She’s the manifestation of “whatever it takes” in human form.

Abbott has a tough job as the possessed Colin and is never less than compelling as his world crumbles around him.

It all ends in a truly horrifying act of violence with viewers left to make up their own minds as to whether Tasya was ever not in control.

Possessor proves that Brandon Cronenberg is a major talent in his own right.  Possessor is a beautiful, tense and shocking look at shattered psyches and the ties that bind us. 

5 out of 5 stars

Possessor premiered in the UK at the BFI London Film Festival and is being released by Signature Entertainment on 27 November 2020