LFF REVIEW: ‘Possessor’ (2020) is an Engrossing, Nihilistic Dreamscape

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“An original sci-fi thriller with a killer concept”

Like father, like son- the Cronenberg family seem to have a thing for body horror and ideas around the dark side of technology. Possessor definitely ticks those boxes, but Brandon Cronenberg has created an original sci-fi thriller with a killer concept. It is difficult to ignore the hype surrounding the film following its screening at Sundance and earning the alternative title Possessor: Uncut but be assured that there is plenty of brutal violence, explicit sex and interesting ideas on identity and control, even if they aren’t fully fleshed out.

Possessor is set in the near future in a world of assassins who hijack other people’s bodies to commit assassination through them. The concept is introduced in an engrossing prologue that sets the tone perfectly: a haunting score, an engrossing performance from Gabrielle Graham as the unfortunate human host, and a brutally violent murder. The assassin behind the hit is Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), one of the best in her line of work who clearly has been affected by her job. Of course, it isn’t long before she embarks on the next big job: assassinate a CEO (Sean Bean) by possessing his daughter’s boyfriend, Colin (Christopher Abbot). The job doesn’t go as plan as Tasya struggles to remain in control of Colin’s free will and the two fight for dominance.

The first act is especially strong as Possessor surprisingly takes the time to begin exploring interesting ideas around the central concept and Vos’ character. Before returning home to her partner and son after that riveting prologue, Tasya has to rehearse her dialogue with them and is simultaneously haunted and excited by the violent nature of being an assassin. Has she lost herself over time because of her work or has Tasya always been like this? Unfortunately, the film doesn’t answer these kinds of intriguing questions with the characters. Similarly, there are other fascinating ideas with the characters that don’t go much further than an idea, such as Tasya spying on Colin and repeating his dialogue to understand her next host, but we never actually dig into Colin’s personality or character at all. Possessor has a habit of presenting the potential for interesting character studies and thematic commentary but then refuses to go any further. The film makes up for this, however, by presenting a nihilistic, dreamscape vision wrapped up in a thrilling plot.

A woman in a white medical top (Andrea Riseborough) lies on a cream sofa wearing a futuristic headset. From 'Possessor'
Image courtesy of Signature Entertainment

Dario Argento is clearly a huge influence for Cronenberg here as a lot of the scenes are drenched in bright, neon colours, especially when Tasya’s psyche breaks down and conflicts with Colin’s own mind. Editor Matthew Hannam has done an incredible job with these particular sequences by cutting flashes of both character’s memories and nightmarish imagery into an engrossing visual treat. As the film goes on, it becomes increasingly difficult to recognise who is in control of Colin which makes for some unexpected plot twists, keeping audiences on their toes. Andrea Riseborough is great here, as always, but Christopher Abbot deserves praise for playing Tasya in Colin’s body but also Colin as, well, Colin. It’s a strange double role but Abbot convincingly pulls it off.

The violence and sex on display is definitely extreme but it never feels gratuitous. One particular sex scene will surely be talked about for some time: Tasya and Colin’s bodies and minds blending as they have sex with Colin’s girlfriend; the stark nudity on display purposefully comments on identity and gender. It’s just a shame Cronenberg doesn’t take the idea further elsewhere in the film. Dan Martin and the special effects team have outdone themselves with some of the best practical effects on film for some time, although it makes the brutal ultra-violence much more stomach-churning. Graphic violence here alludes to the relationship Tasya has with violence and her current state of mind.

Possessor has a really strong start and massive potential thanks to some original concepts and intriguing ideas. The little hints teased are great- Tasya’s psychopathic tendencies, her loss of identity and thrill of becoming someone else- and shown through creative visuals, but don’t develop enough to make any comments or suggestions to the audience. What we do get, however, is a stylish blood-soaked thriller bolstered by strong performances and a strong visual identity. Possessor will still grab hold of you and refuse to let go until the credits roll.

Directed/Written by: Brandon Cronenberg

Produced by: Fraser Ash, Niv Fichman, Kevin Krikst, Andrew Starke

Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbot, Tuppence Middleton, Sean Bean, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Available: In UK cinemas on November 27th 2020

Header image courtesy of Signature Entertainment