Thursday, October 8, 2020

My Analyst Told Me That I Was Right Out of My Head: On Brandon Cronenberg's Possessor

(Brandon Cronenberg, UK/Canada, 2020, 103 mins)

Possessor begins as a woman named Holly (Gabrielle Graham) pokes a needle into the top of her skull. She smiles at first, and then tears begin to flow as the substance she has injected works its way into her system. The way Brandon Cronenberg moves in to capture the blood oozing from the wound confirms that he's David Cronenberg's son. If anything, the entirety of Antiviral, his directorial debut, did the same, and yet it doesn't feel as if he's copying his father so much as continuing his obsession with the body and its (mal)-
functions, particularly when it comes into contact with man-made entities. 

In the next scene, Holly has changed her hairstyle from cornrows to a sleek, asymmetrical bob. She proceeds to enter an elevator with several other attractive young hostesses all clad in sky blue and white track suits. She then exits the elevator, walks up a set of gilded stairs, enters a banquet hall, strides to the bar, and plunges a knife, over and over again, into the ample belly of a middle-aged businessman. The result is a disgusting, bloody mess. Not to give too much away, but she doesn't make it out of the hall alive.

Cronenberg then shifts to pale, blonde Tasya "Taz" Vos (Andrea Riseborough looking almost nothing like her brunette Mandy character), "the star performer," as handler Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh, star of David Cronenberg's eXistenZ) describes her, of a Minority Report-like assassination-for-hire organization. Taz was controlling Holly's consciousness when the hostess killed a man in cold blood. 

After her exit interview, she returns to her husband (Rossif Sutherland, Donald Sutherland's son) and child (Gage Graham-Arbuthnot). On the news, she catches a report about the murder, but doesn't say a word. Husband and son have no idea they live with an assassin. But they do know that the increasingly preoccupied Taz has been slipping away from them.

At their next meeting, Girder fills Taz in on Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott, born to play a patsy-turned-psycho), her next method-acting assignment. Taz studies up on him, figures out what makes him tick, and then takes control of his brain. Cronenberg depicts this Star Trek-meets-Freaky Friday process by way of nifty, in-camera effects (among his many credits, cinema-
tographer Karim Hussain has shot episodes of Hannibal). When Colin wakes up the next day, he looks the same, but he's actually Taz (her body remains in the research institute). He tries to act as if nothing has changed, but his fiancĂ©, Ava (Tuppence Middleton), notes, "You're acting strange today." 

Colin goes off to work at his spectacularly dull job as part of a surveillance unit in a data-mining firm overseen by Ava's CEO father, John Parse (Sean Bean at his Beaniest). As at home, he tries to act like the old Colin, but something isn't quite right. His mind keeps short-circuiting. He's Colin one minute and Taz the next. No one can see what's going on, but he can feel it--and we can see it (this is where the melty-face imagery from the poster comes in). The malfunction follows him home where he and Ava prepare to attend a party at her father's mansion. Colin's target: her disapproving dad. 

All the while, the voice in his ear tells him what to do and how to do it, like a Mission Impossible operative. Once again, a disgusting bloody mess ensues. Then the short-circuiting kicks in again. After Colin takes care of business, Taz attempts to return to her body. It didn't work the way it was supposed to with Holly, and it doesn't work the way it's supposed to with Colin either. Fate took Holly out of the picture, but Taz remains stuck in Colin's body. The longer it goes on, the more harm he could cause, and the more likely she is to suffer permanent brain damage. 

In the end, Possessor is a slasher film in the guise of sci-fi horror. As with John Woo's Face/Off, Cronenberg depicts technology that doesn't yet exist, and possibly never will, but when you look past the genre trappings, he's essentially depicting schizophrenia. There's a point at which Colin argues with Taz, and suddenly, the scenario seems less fantastical than before. That's life for some people. The impossibility of two separate individuals sharing one brain only leads to more bloodshed than Taz had intended. Let's just say Colin takes his murderous assignment and runs with it.

For the most part, the actors make the unbelievable believable. As written, Taz is a little opaque, but Colin make up for it with the force of his anger. When Taz takes control of his brain to force him to kill, she taps into resentment that was already there, which is possibly why he doesn't just aim to kill, but to torture and maim along the way. Colin represents an extension of Abbott's work in James White and It Comes at Night where decency and danger commingle, and it isn't always possible to predict which side of his persona will win out in the end. The tragedy of Possessor is that Colin never fully becomes Taz. He knows what he's doing, but he doesn't know how to stop it. She doesn't either. But Brandon Cronenberg does.  

Possessor opens in theaters and drive-ins on Friday. Digital and VOD TBA.  

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