Possessor is a nightmarish mind-bending sci-fi thriller about identify theft

An assassin takes over the body of others in Possessor (now in cinemas), a cold-blooded sci-fi thriller from second generation filmmaker Brandon Cronenberg. Here’s critic Craig Mathieson’s review.

Science-fiction has been the domain of the blockbuster for decades now, attaining a scale where the action and the concepts are vast but impersonal: alien invasion, malevolent artificial intelligence, galaxy-spanning journeys. But there’s also a covert strand, an infiltrator to the genre, where the future’s ramifications play out in intimate terms that invoke horror’s terrifying grip.

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Possessor, the second feature from Canadian filmmaker Brandon Cronenberg, is a particularly good example. Blood soaked but icy to the touch, its story of a cerebral assassin starting to lose control of her life while hiding in the minds of others turns the themes of control and authority into a vision of mind-bending possession and visceral penance.

First sensed in a young woman’s inarticulate grief, but only seen after the tearful subject has committed a murder and then been killed by responding police, Tasya (Andrea Riseborough) is a corporate assassin who remotely takes control of people who have access to her targets. Tasya commits the killing and then has her host commit suicide. It’s a bleak failsafe mechanism whose demands are physically apparent.

Tasya has a creviced face, spectral blonde hair, and in her exit interview with her boss, Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), she’s confused about her family status with husband Michael (Rossif Sutherland) and son Ira (Gage Graham Arbuthnot). Controlling others is diluting Tasya’s consciousness, and she tries to compensate via sensory experiences while undercover, whether dipping her hand in a pool of blood or having sex with a host’s body.

The film tells this story with a minimum of exposition and backstory, but a surfeit of menace and stretched taut trauma. You never get an explanation of the system involved, for example but there is the moment when a host fearfully removes the implant that’s been covertly inserted in their head. In some ways Possessor is a reflection of Christopher Nolan’s Inception. It plays out inside the mind, where control is a fluid concept and reality can start to fracture.

But Cronenberg, with his coolly assured camera moves, works at a micro level, particularly when Tasya’s new assignment takes her into the consciousness of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), who resists her takeover. Colin is meant to be a vessel to his girlfriend’s targeted tech mogul father, John Parse (Sean Bean), but his defiance plays out with increasingly splintered imagery that eschews the digital for the psychological.

The Cronenberg family has been depicting the limits of meddling with minds since the late 1970s, when Brandon’s father David essentially invented body horror with heretical features such as Scanners and Videodrome. The lineage remains apparent, especially with the casting of Jennifer Jason Leigh, who starred in David’s 1999 virtual reality puzzle-box eXistenZ, but Brandon Cronenberg has found his own footing in ways that weren’t apparent in his first feature, 2012’s Antiviral.

There’s a striking level of gore, engineered to express Tasya’s instability, and the world that takes shape is one where the concept of identity theft has a nightmarish heft. The way that Tasya struggles to be herself when not working, masterfully portrayed by Riseborough with a mix of vulnerability and resolve, suggests that she’s most herself when steering others to their doom. That’s a horror beyond any technology.