Imagine if David Cronenberg had mashed his Naked Lunch with Existenz to make an unsettling, bloody, low-tech assassination thriller. You don’t have to, because his son, Brandon Cronenberg, has done just that with Possessor.
There’s a direct line from father to son in this twisty, high-concept, body-swap sci-fi, including alienated, unsympathetic characters in a trippy, lo-fi, VHS-horror style.
In many ways this is a golden-age science-fiction premise; an assassin takes over an unsuspecting patsy’s body to carry out industrial espionage hits for corporate clients, pulling out at the last second as the ‘perpetrator’ commits suicide. The price to pay is increasingly unstable mental health and the breakdown of identity in both assassin and host.
In premise and execution, Possessor is a challenging film to love, and you get the feeling that’s exactly how Brandon Cronenberg wants it.
The body-swap technology is kept deliberately vague, although the portable ‘brain reset’ machine that looks like a Radio Shack transmitter kit from 1972 is a nice touch.
Andrea Riseborough (Oblivion) turns in another chilly, brittle performance as our anti-heroine Tasya Vos. Sociopath at best, psychopath at worst, Vos has a nasty habit of eschewing firearms in favour of knives and pokers to exact bloody carnage on her victims. It makes her down-time pining for her estranged family look like so many crocodile tears. Or one of Thomas Harris’ serial killers wanting the family life they can’t have. If Cronenberg is expecting sympathy for the devil, it doesn’t work.
The latest ‘innocent’ host is a small-time drug dealer who’s landed on his feet with a spoilt heiress. Christopher Abbott plays low-life Colin Tate and his possessor with personalities so intertwined that it’s difficult to tell who’s who in key moments of the plot. We don’t get to know Tate well enough before possession to build any sympathy for him, either.
Sean Bean cameo’s as thoroughly unpleasant tech oligarch John Parse and Vos’ latest victim. ‘Thoroughly unpleasant’ appears to be Bean’s default setting these days; ‘tech oligarch’ is a stretch too far, a bit like ‘brilliant cloning scientist’ in The Island.
The final casting is Cronenberg veteran Jennifer Jason Leigh (Existenz) as Vos’ equally manipulative, chilly and untrustworthy controller. It’s a full set of unsympathetic characters in an intriguing, high-concept plot that should be a thrill-ride, but is actually less engaging than the daft Predestination or ludicrous Total Recall remake.
Thinking it over, Possessor reads like a script written by sociopaths for sociopaths with some fancy editing thrown in to muddy the waters.
All that’s left is to marvel at Cronenberg Jnr’s use of prosthetics and in-camera VFX to visualise family trademark body horror and a shocking climax. It’s accomplished, but empty. RC
Director: Brandon Cronenberg
Writer: Brandon Cronenberg
Genre: sci fi, horror, thriller
Running time: 1h 42m
Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Tuppence Middleton, Sean Bean, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tiio Horn, Rossif Sutherland