The premise of Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor is the sort of sci-fi make believe that’s so outlandish, a bit of comfort can be found in this otherwise unsettling, intense film. The sort of body-swapping, mind-melding reality he creates is so far-fetched that as the rest of the film successfully creeps us out, at least we can take solace in the fact that it could never actually happen. At least, that’s what I need to tell myself.
Andrea Riseborough (Mandy, The Death of Stalin) is Tasya, a top assassin at a very surreal agency, one where her job is to literally possess the bodies of their clients and carry out the deadly deeds assigned to her. Tasya’s handler, Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), breaks down each new assignment before she goes into the field (body?), and the team at the agency keeps a close eye on her during the possessing—she spends the assignment in a sort of pod, attached via machinery to the psyche and body of whomever she’s taking over. The only way to end the assignment, to leave the possessed’s body and return to her own, is to commit suicide, a dark resolution to an already messed-up line of work. But as the mechanics in Cronenberg’s alternative world work, it means the person who—as far as the authorities are concerned—committed the murders Tasya was commissioned to carry out is also now dead and no longer a problem.
Cronenberg could’ve easily built the entire film around Tasya’s murderous assignments; there’s no shortage of deadly assassin films, and with the body-takeover twist, there’s plenty of original storytelling to play with. The filmmaker goes a step further in Tasya’s story, however, as she sets about embedding with her latest assignment, a cocaine dealer turned kept boyfriend to one of his rich clients. When a relative eager to get his inheritance early hires the agency to have Colin (Christopher Abbott) kill the girlfriend, her wealthy father and then himself in the heat of a mental breakdown, Tasya starts by observing her future self to adopt his mannerisms, speech patterns and affectations. Girder and the team set her up for the swap; soon she’s living Colin’s life and, in a matter of days, the violence begins. But something goes wrong in the “binding,” and the second half of Possessor is a brutal deterioration into crossed consciousnesses and a battle, both literally and figuratively, to get back to what’s real, whatever that is.
With a creative team including cinematographer Karim Hussain and editor Matthew Hannam (The Nest), Possessor packs a stylistic punch as intense as its premise, with bold colors and frenetic cuts ramping up the sense of chaos as Tasya’s world falls apart. From the opening scene, Tasya in the body of a young woman set on murdering a man in a busy nightclub, the eye-popping blues of her jumpsuit and reds of the blood pouring out of his neck (so. much. blood.) are grotesquely vibrant. Jumping between consciousnesses isn’t exactly a visual process, but the film realizes the concept with blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cuts that cue us into what’s going on in Colin/Tasya’s head as the lines start to blur between them. And with Girder’s grounding vkoice as a touchstone on each step of the mission (she can tap into Tasya’s psyche and speak directly to her through the contraption doing the binding), there’s hope that the assassin might just find her way out of the mess this latest assignment has found her in.
Possessor is very much not for the faint of heart; it’s being marketed as an “uncut” version; at just 103 minutes, it’s not clear how much could’ve been cut for some tamer version of the film. In the version being released, Cronenberg succeeds at delivering both a creepy sci-fi dystopia as smart as the likes of Ex Machina combined with a graphic, gruesome horror film any gore-fiend will find plenty to delight (if that’s the right word…) in. At the very least, it’s a strong way to start October and a season perfect for sharp, original thrillers like this one.
Possessor kicks off the month-long Music Box of Horrors event at ChiTown Movies Drive-In tonight with an advanced screening. It opens at the Music Box Theatre on Friday, October 2.