By Elias Savada.
This is a brutal horror film and not for youngsters, no matter how much it succeeds in its weird Freaky Friday way.”
Recently, business visionary Elon Musk talked about one of his latest science projects, a Neuralink brain implant to “supercharge human communication.” Except there’s already a film about how that was already a fact (well, fake fact) way back in February 2008. And how it was already being put to provocative use as an assassin’s tool. In a world where science and science fiction tend to blend too closely together, Possessor takes that speculative fiction genre to grandiose and gruesome levels. It suggests that inhabiting someone else’s body by replacing a host’s conscious mind with that of a killer’s, might just be possible. That, as evident here, can’t always be a good thing. Even if you’re the higher-minded executioner.
Set a dozen years ago in a Toronto that is experiencing the birth of the electronic cigarette craze, the second feature from Brandon Cronenberg, son of (or clone of) David, shares his father’s affinity for making blood-spattered body horror films. Brandon pays sly tribute to some of his dad’s works, including Scanners (1981). Cronenberg fils actually plucked Jennifer Jason Leigh, the star of his father’s 1999 scifi thriller eXistenz, for a plum role in his bold and bloody journey through a dimension way beyond the outer limits of the lighter elements of sight and sound found in The Twilight Zone.
Cronenberg’s first step into feature filmmaking was with Antiviral, a dark, scifi exposé of a sick society’s obsession with celebrity, a world that thrives on fandom’s literal fascination with the illnesses of the rich and famous. It came out a decade too early, perhaps, and seems more appropriate in today’s coronavirus times. I wonder how the writer-director might tackle some brighter subjects (ones that induce any type of laughter), but he seems to enjoy dissecting humanity’s too many tortured, un-masked souls. He’s got plenty to choose from.
Cronenberg sets the audience up from the start with a quick kill, albeit instead of the quick bullet to the head, the death is a huge blood feast, raining down through nearly two dozen brutal stab wounds to the poor slob of a victim. The real killer isn’t even in the same room or building. She’s off in a laboratory of sorts with a huge contraption on her head. It’s at the office of Trematon, a secretive corporate entity that provides long distance assassinations-for-hire using brain implant technology. If you’ve got the big bucks, hiring them is a no-brainer. (Sorry, I had to add a little levity in here; the film doesn’t have a single speck of humor.) After some minor head surgery on a heavily researched dupe, the special brain recipe allows for prime operative Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) to sneak inside someone else’s mind and body and do the dirty work. Then, just after the killing’s done, the unlucky host commits suicide and the host retracts, unnoticed.
It’s heavy mental work that’s starting to sap her sanity in ways that begin to affect how she copes with her own life. Perhaps it’s time to retire and spend more time with her young son and have make-up sex with her ex-husband. But work beckons her back.
Her puppet master is Girder (Leigh), the brains behind the mysterious arrangement, using the same wireless network to talk remotely with Vos in the person she’s inhabiting. (Elon Musk is probably taking notes if he’s watching this part.) After the introductory slaying, the action moves to the film’s core subject, a young man named Colin Tate, which allows for Cronenberg to play with some gender-bending ideas as well. Christopher Abbott ends up lighting both ends of the candle in this role. First as the philandering fiancé of Ava Parse (Tuppence Middleton), whose divorced, ruthless, and filthy rich father (Sean Bean) has hired his soon to be son-in-law as a tech lab rat in his data-mining conglomerate. And then as Vos in his body, experiencing mind snaps and losing some control, fitfully playing a stranger in a strange man.
In no time at all, things go haywire, and deaths are abundant. There’s definitely a trick up Cronenberg’s sleeve in the third act, although you’re not really sure who’s going to left standing. Or alive. Every member of the ensemble of game.
Technically, this a groan-inducing effort. The heavy-handed, discordant score by Jim Williams and low, penetrating sound design (lots of muffled voices) by Martin Pavey offers a punch to the gut, while Karim Hussain’s cinematographer paints a dim, garish look at the glass towers and murky office buildings when not returning back to the film’s basic blood red palate. Matthew Hannam’s editing might send you into epileptic fits during the “binding” sessions.
Some of the tech seems appropriate for the time, in a sad, innovative way. The control used to calibrate the unlucky folks’ brains after their surgeries looks like a portable dimmer with a cable to a meat probe. If the film had been set in the present, this dark science would be wireless – and adjusted through a smartphone app.
Ugh, I need to break away for a moment. Talk about job stress! Is work getting under your skin? What an out of body – out of mind experience!
OK, I’ve recalibrated. Warning, this is a brutal horror film and not for youngsters, no matter how much it succeeds in its weird Freaky Friday way. There’s also full-body nudity and simulated sex. And then the paranoia sets in.
Possessor is heavy stuff. Shakespeare’s tragedies never went this deep. Brandon Cronenberg has one-upped the master – Like Father, Like Son – and his darkness is absolute.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).