Despite never having seen a film by Brandon Cronenberg before, you could probably take a good stab at what to expect. Considering his father pioneered the body horror genre in the 70s and 80s, it’s no surprise that Cronenberg Jr. follows a similar line of thinking in his debut directorial feature. Possessor is visceral, inventive and absolutely up there with the work of his father.
Rather than going for straight ‘scary’ horror, the fear of Possessor comes a lot more from the brutality of the violence, and the implications of its unique concept. In this world – seemingly a few years advanced but not too dissimilar from ours – assassins can enter the body of seemingly innocuous citizens to pull off hits without being detected. It’s a concept explored in other media – the Assassin’s Creed and WatchDogs game franchises spring to mind – but Cronenberg, who also pens the film, delve a lot deeper into the psychological toll that such intense involvement in someone else’s life can take.
It all revolves around Tas (Andrea Riseborough): an assassin reaching the end of her tether, struggling to balance work with seeing her young son and estranged husband Michael (Rossif Sutherland). As one big job before an extended break, she enters the body of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), the future son-in-law of company CEO John Parse (a wonderfully snarky Sean Bean), to execute John and take control of the company. It’s a simple assassination plot that lends itself perfectly to the concept, allowing for plenty of exploration of the characters to take place.
Possessor really delves into identity; what constitutes a person, and what happens when those constituent elements are lost. As the subject of this pseudo-possession, Colin (Abbott) is the character we become most acquainted with – which is odd considering Vas is the film’s protagonist. However, it works well enough, as Abbott’s performance is layered enough to convey the idea that there is somebody else controlling his body: we get awkward conversations, uncomfortable body language and an underlying sense of not belonging that simmers throughout the film.
This sense of identity loss is something Tas almost clings too: despite finishing a mission, she is always reluctant to kill herself and return to the ‘real world’, creating the idea that she’s happier when someone else, away from her problems. This dilemma allows for some of the film’s most disturbing and vivid imagery – scenes of Tas and Colin’s faces moulding together and ripping apart linger long in the memory – with Cronenberg Jr. taking after his father brilliantly. The violence is equally grisly – you’ll see teeth cracking, eyes being gouged and necks being slashed – and it creates an atmosphere where you really dread the violence because of how brutal it is.
Without getting into it too much, Cronenberg takes his exploration of identity to the fullest extent as the battle between Tas and Colin becomes not just existential but physical too. As the lines between who is who are blurred, the horror really ramps up and particularly towards the final act, takes some really dark and ethereal turns. Yet perhaps the only element that detracts from how convincing the film’s concept is is the lack of characterisation of Tas. Despite being the protagonist we learn far more about Colin than we do her – obviously a result of her being in his consciousness – and the film wraps up so quickly that the consequences of the plot don’t really sink in. Yet that’s a minor grip when every other element of Possessor works so splendidly.
As an examination of identity and how one can so easily lose oneself, Possessor is brilliant. As a body horror in the vein of Brandon Cronenberg’s old man, it’s also brilliant. A confident and profound debut feature, it certainly puts Cronenberg in the conversation with the other great modern horror directors – think Aster and Eggers – and puts a new blend on the genre his father really masterminded. Cronenberg Jr. will certainly be one to look out for in the future – and Possessor is a horror unlike any other that deserves plenty of praise.