THE STORY – An elite assassin uses brain-implant technology to inhabit other people’s bodies.
THE CAST – Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Rossif Sutherland, Tuppence Middleton, Sean Bean & Jennifer Jason Leigh
THE TEAM – Brandon Cronenberg (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 104 Minutes
By Josh Parham
It often seems these days that horror films exist in one of two different categories. Many are cheaply produced fare that are hung together by a basic plot and hollow performances that are merely the delivery system for loud and annoying jump scares. On the other end is films that aim for more sophisticated storytelling, using horror as a means to tell a deeper and more complex character study. The new film “Possessor” certainly has the tone of something closer to the latter group. Yet it still has an affinity for gory production value that plays to the more primal instincts of what fans of the genre love. It’s an intriguing film with a bold execution that leaves you with a memorable impression.
The film takes place in a world in which a shadowy corporation sends agents out to infiltrate people’s minds and control their every action. This is done for nefarious purposes, often leading to assassinations of both specific targets and the host, at the behest of wealthy clients, and Tasya (Andrea Riseborough) is one of the company’s best. She is sent on a particular job to possess the mind and body of Colin (Christopher Abbot), a reserved man in prime position to kill the owner of the company he works for in a plot to gain political and financial control. However, resistance is felt all along the way. The control between Tasya and Colin’s mind jostles between them, and only one entity will be able to remain dominant over the other.
The intriguing premise is what is immediately notable here, and writer-director Brandon Cronenberg does a successful job at authentically building up the fine details of this world. There is a vibrancy to the filmmaking that creates an uneasy tension in every scene. At the same time, it’s also a thrilling genre exercise that combines physiological terror with graphic brutality in an engaging way. The violence is extreme, but it’s meant to comment on the state of mind for these characters and inform on their personalities. It all goes into a running commentary on the disturbing ways that free will is robbed of individuals, and it’s a terrifying concept that keeps one enthralled. With moments of great drama as well as alluring psychedelic imagery, all aided by stunning cinematography and editing choices, this is a finely textured vision that is just as enticing to explore as it is repellent to discover.
Still, the vision created by Cronenberg does have some trouble sustaining engagement all the way through. His script is not as ambitious as his direction, and while it presents an interesting backdrop, the actual plot itself comes across as shallow and lacking any kind of nuance. This would not be as much of a problem were it not for the loss of momentum in several places that makes one lose the emotional connection with the story and characters. It is also difficult not to completely disregard comparisons to Cronenberg’s infamous father and his earlier films, ones that played with similar themes in a more dynamic way. In the end, one wishes the younger Cronenberg to have pushed even further into the surreal and brutality. Such efforts would have been more divisive, but it would have compensated for the lacking depth in the screenplay and further highlighted the great filmmaking strengths on display.
Given the nature of the story, it might be difficult to classify Riseborough as the lead of the film since her actual screen time is limited. Still, she is able to convey such a grounded performance in every scene. She feels natural and authentic is a film that is emboldened by daring choices, and there are genuine layers to her portrayal that effectively showcases a broken woman whose immense number of flaws makes her uniquely sympathetic and dangerous. Abbot has a tough job as he plays his character in different modes: one as himself and taken over by another. Unfortunately, most of his performance comes across as bland, and not in a way that totally fits the characterization. There are moments when he flashes a more dynamic range, but there is still a wooden quality to his presence that rings hollow. It’s not a terrible performance, but as much of the film rests on his shoulders, he doesn’t quite carry it all the way to the end.
The supporting cast isn’t given as much focus as the main players, but there are some notable turns. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Tasya’s handler at the company, and she exudes an easy-going energy that thinly masks an insidious objective. It’s familiar territory from her, but she expertly makes a small character quite absorbing in every scene she’s in. Tuppence Middleton plays Colin’s girlfriend, and while she shares a believable report with Abbot, it’s not meant to be a fleshed-out character so her impact is minimal. The same goes for Sean Bean, who plays her father. His delivers on the gruff persona but not much else can be gleaned from such a shallow role. This describes most of the ensemble, though it really isn’t much of a concern given the story squarely focuses on a core group that is meant to have most of the attention.
“Possessor” is a film that intentionally aims to shock and dismay any audience that would venture to see it. It offers so much vibrant and arresting images through skilled filmmaking that it cannot help but be impressive. The violence works in tandem with the psychological unrest, and both play into the larger themes of self-control and identity. It works well enough to compensate for lacking nuance within the script as well as some performances that aren’t quite as effective, even though others are very appealing. This is certainly not a film everyone will love, particularly if one’s taste in the horror genre is for a more general audience. However, this is still a fascinating exercise that offers a captivating exploration, even if it didn’t need to pull the sparring number of punches that it ends up doing.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – An intriguing premise is brought to vivid life by bold filmmaking choices that emphasize a beautifully morose world. The physical and psychological horror is fully realized through striking imagery. Andrea Riseborough gives a grounded and authentic performance.
THE BAD – The script is lacking a certain nuance to make the story as a whole more compelling. Christopher Abbot struggles to inhabit a complex character, and he comes across as rather wooden.