If the body is the cage we claim it to be, shouldn’t there be a way to escape it? In Possessor, Brandon Cronenberg melds future and past to create an alternate present where it is possible to free the mind and lodge your brain into a new flesh—at a cost. Cue the hallucinatory phantasmagoria.
In this retrofuturist dimension, the only way to experience such freedom is to become a killer for a shadowy conglomerate. With the company’s top-secret technology at their disposal, these assassins can hijack any person’s body and use this vessel to anonymously commit violent crimes for the company. Meet Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), a corporate drone who says little and feels less. Vos is a steely pro, but unfortunately, the trauma of each crime she commits in these bodies is starting to affect her own psyche in the form of trippy freakouts.
Her latest mission, assigned to her by an equally cool Jennifer Jason Leigh (essentially playing the same role she did in the similar sci-horror flick, Annihilation), is to use their vague brain-implant machine gobbledygook to enter Colin Tate’s (Christopher Abbott) body and use him to kill his tech mogul uncle. It should be a piece of cake, just as long as she doesn’t lose her mind in the process.
Does all this flesh blending ring a bell? The body horror mechanics of the film bear more than a passing resemblance to the elder Cronenberg’s work. It is unclear, however, whether this strict adherence to classic Cronenbergian aesthetics is a calculated move on the part of Brandon or merely a gene that runs in his family’s blood. Typically, modern filmmakers raised by filmmakers of the previous generation have sought to escape their parents’ shadows and define themselves in a bold new way. Sofia Coppola, Sam Levinson, and even Panos Cosmatos are all examples of directors who have created striking and iconic aesthetic styles of their own, seemingly in defiance of their forebears, as if to proclaim: “I am more than just the nepotism residue of Hollywood inbreeding: I have a story that is all my own, one that is necessary to tell.” In the case of S. Coppola’s refreshingly feminine aesthetics and restrained emotion, this route has paid off in spades. Other filmmakers, like Levinson, seem to be so preoccupied with saying something important and new that they forget to say anything cogent at all.
Alternatively, Possessor’s familiarity begs the question: is Brandon Cronenberg uniquely comfortable with embracing his father’s legacy, or is he simply not a strong enough filmmaker to stand on his own two legs? The truth is, we’ve seen Possessor many times over the course of David Cronenberg’s early career. Its grotesque charms harken back to that bygone era, its future retrograde, its painful-looking surgical tools taking on an unhygienic, worn, earth tone plastic quality reminiscent of a 1970s psychic healing/dentistry practice.
In other words, it is a classical Cronenberg flick, sprung out of time and sewn into our present. It is reductive, nostalgic, and unoriginal, yes, but above all else, it is startlingly effective. As frustrating as it is to admit, Brandon has tapped into some of his daddy’s magic ickiness, conjuring up a claustrophobic, humid space of anxious transformation in a way only a Cronenberg could. Using a litany of practical effects he and DP Karim Hussain developed over the course of an eight year pre-production period, Brandon reflects on the bodily boundaries previously explored in Dead Ringers, Crash, and even Rabid, finding brand new ways to rip the human form to shreds. It plays like a big(ger) budget remake of Cronenberg’s first feature, the 1969 student film Stereo: Tile 38 Of a CAEE Educational Mosaic, in which subjects of a mysterious experiment begin to develop a psychic hive mind with one another rooted in bisexual orgiastic experience. Daring to go even gorier than such predecessors, the younger Cronenberg makes flesh melt like crayons, blood flow endlessly from impossibly deep wounds, and individuals morph together like a multiple personality disorder manifested physically. Here, the body is pathetically ill-equipped to handle the psychic damage we do unto ourselves and one another. Watching the film, one almost pities the feeble flesh itself, rather than the mind inside of it.
While all this psychosexual hoopla might have been par for the course back in the 1970s, it is increasingly rare to see this kind of psychedelic nightmare nowadays. Even the elder Cronenberg has shied away from such transgressive material in recent years, moving on to more elegant and subtle crime dramas. There is something to be said about accurately invoking a bygone era, and moreover, doing it in a way that is compellingly queasy and darkly sexual. Brandon Cronenberg has dredged this world of liquid transgressions up from the abyss, asking whether we really ever grew past it. Were these questions ever answered, or were we just sick of having to feel uncomfortable on a deeper level when consuming our bloodbath fantasias?
Indeed, perhaps what’s most refreshing about Possessor is its refusal to shy away from sex and desire. The slick and indulgent gore is beautifully executed, but this sort of ultraviolence saturates our media in a way it did not back in the elder Cronenberg’s time. Ultimately, the full frontal male nudity in the film is more shocking than any eyeball gouging or brain splattering could be. Instead of avoiding the erotic complications of body swapping, Cronenberg revels in the uneasy in-betweens implicit in the premise. In this alternate world of bisexual mind-assassins, gender and sexuality are easily refracted and remixed into indefinable combinations. The camera gazes at Riseborough and Abbott through a subtly sensual lens, both actors’ sublimely unique faces exuding unspoken layers of texture and meaning. Each lead possesses a certain combination of traditional masculine and feminine traits that further complicates the binaries of gender within the film. Abbott’s face is all softness and long, beautiful eyelashes, while Riseborough’s face is taut and sunken eyed, her chin and cheekbones sharply defined. Beyond recalling the fluid gender dynamics, their unorthodox appearances harken back to a time when there was room on the silver screen for people who were less smoothed down and altogether more fascinating to watch.
Stuck in the position of inhabiting one another’s bodies, Abbott and Riseborough have an unorthodox but organic chemistry, soul mates in an entirely strange and different sense of the word. One only wishes that Cronenberg delved deeper into these ideas rather than returning to gory action spectacle in the film’s final act. The tension and terror in Possessor emanate from its existential exploration of what it is to be thrust into consciousness, what it is to be unwillingly gendered, what it is to be perceived in every sense of the word. How does it feel to hide underneath skin, to inhabit another brain… and is any body truly your own? The film yearns to answer these questions, but backs down into a more traditional sci-fi horror resolution that deflates the preceding events, flattening it into yet another visually striking yet empty horror indie. By the end, Possessor betrays itself and leaves the viewer cold. Nonetheless, having sat with the film for some time, the more fascinating transgressive musings are what linger in the brain, more so than any clumsy plot mechanics. While limited by familiarity, Brandon’s film ultimately proves that there is life left in the preoccupations of the Cronenbergs, and that there are still undiscovered, untapped mysteries to be found within the realm of the flesh.