POSSESSOR. Heartless Science-Fiction Thriller

In “Possessor”, Cronenberg is so engrossed in the concept he created that he doesn’t do much with it afterward.

Krzysztof Walecki

18 August 2023


A mysterious organization possesses technology that allows them to “enter” a chosen person and then control them to carry out contract killings. After a successful assassination, the killer commits suicide, while simultaneously experiencing a psychological disconnection from the true perpetrator. A perfect crime – from a distance, without any traces pointing to third-party involvement, and with the dead assassin. However, the titular possessor, the one who takes over the body of the victim and lives within it for several days, bears the consequences. Returning to one’s own identity becomes difficult, memory falters, but above all, doubts arise about the extent to which one is still themselves, whether they can recognize their own thoughts, and how much they can trust themselves.

These questions form the basis of the new film by Brandon Cronenberg, son of David Cronenberg. The temptation is to compare the works of both directors, given that the younger Cronenberg’s interests revolve around themes familiar from his father’s works. Possessor draws on the traditions of cyberpunk thrillers and body horror, presenting us with a spy-industrial story – similarities are easy to discern, especially with “Scanners”. However, I do not intend to reference David Cronenberg’s films in this review, as it would be tactless and unfair to his son, whose work stands on its own. I have no doubt that Possessor is exactly the film its creator envisioned, both in terms of style and ideas; however, this does not mean that Cronenberg’s vision has won me over.

The titular possessor is Tasya Vos (played by the enigmatic Andrea Riseborough), whom we get to know after she chose to repeatedly stab her victim with a knife while carrying out a contract, rather than using the prepared gun. This should tell us something about her. Her handler, Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), questions this choice, to which Vos responds that the knife suited the perpetrator. We don’t know if she’s talking about herself or the girl she was controlling. She claims she wants a break from work, to spend some time with her husband and son, but after just one day at home, she decides to return to her duties. Her new assignment involves killing the CEO of a data mining corporation (Sean Bean), and he is to be killed by the boyfriend of his daughter, Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott). Vos enters the man’s body, replacing his consciousness with her own, but soon, the first problems arise.

In the first half of the film, Cronenberg, who is not only the director but also the screenwriter, focuses on building the world, familiarizing us with the mechanics of the main character’s work, and creating an atmosphere that suits her nature. There is little empathy here, much coldness, a certain almost inhuman indifference. Before Vos enters her host’s body, she observes him, learns his mannerisms and speech, spies on the life he leads, all to impersonate him as convincingly as possible. She does the same thing just before returning home – practicing lines, smiles, warmth. She is someone else for so long that even her old character has become something she must play. The question then arises, who is Vos truly, and does she even know herself? Riseborough’s portrayal strengthens the story’s distinctive distance, as she becomes the emotionally detached shell of a person, waiting to inhabit another and fill it with herself. She’s like a blank sheet of paper ready for writing, reflected in her appearance – a pale, makeup-free face and light hair. Even when she takes control of Colin and Riseborough yields the screen to the very capable Abbott, it feels like she’s still present, just in a different body. Her performance would be even more impressive if the story didn’t stall at a certain point.

Cronenberg is so engrossed in the concept he created that he doesn’t do much with it afterward. He prefers to explore rather than move forward – he’s interested in Vos’s reactions within Colin’s body, her efforts to keep Colin’s girlfriend (played by Tuppence Middleton, known from Sense8) from discovering the deception, and the consequent questions about the protagonist’s sexuality and the impact of her unique lifestyle on her femininity. However, these are just questions, lacking answers. Furthermore, everything Cronenberg has to say about her is done within the first 20 minutes. The suggestion that Vos is a sadist (using a knife instead of a gun) makes us expect equally drastic scenes later on, which does happen. There is a considerable amount of cruelty, meant to shock, but not necessarily surprise. The plot also follows a predictably linear path, especially after Riseborough’s killer fails to compel herself or the body she’s in to perform certain actions. The most interesting aspect of the dual personality presence within one body and the attempt to take control of it allows the director to delve into the character’s minds, observing the ongoing processes. At this point, Possessor¬†shifts from a science fiction costume to surreal horror, which finds its fullest expression in a chilling scene with a character from the movie’s poster. However, for most of the time, there’s a sense of heartless playing with nested identities.

In one scene, a statement is made that something is inhibiting the protagonist. In Cronenberg’s case, I see no inhibitions when it comes to brutality (bordering on nihilism) and putting his characters in situations that might repel viewers. He’s not a creator who empathizes with his characters or likes them; he clinically observes them, reducing them to mere physicality. While he’s still interested in the sensational intrigue, he finds utility in them, but in the second half of the film, he abandons the entertainment aspect and focuses solely on the question of whether impunity turns us into monsters. In this case, Cronenberg answers quickly and emphatically. So much so that watching the ruthless ending was primarily an exhausting experience for me.