Written and directed by Brandon Cronenberg
Possessor has a structural problem, and while it looks like it might finally do something about it, roughly an hour into its 104 minute runtime, it doesn't actually do anything about it, and, indeed, fails to do anything about it with such nonchalance that I wonder if writer/director/scion Brandon Cronenberg ever realized it was a problem. Which is kind of damning, because it's not a new problem, let alone a problem that ought to have taken anybody by surprise in the editing room. It's a problem that crops up anytime anybody does anything with body swap tropes, and it's a remarkably salient example of it.
So: the closest thing Possessor has to a protagonist is Tasya Vos, a contractor for a shadowy business that uses body-swapping technology to traffic in high-tech, untraceable assassination, deploying unwitting dupes as avatars through which their agents may do their ugly work without fear of either capture or death. Vos is one of their best, so we're told, and she is played by Andrea Riseborough at maximum haggardness, the better to underline how much humanity and personality she has surrendered in order to become not so much a more efficient killer, but rather a more effective pretender to the humanity and personalities of the human vehicles she exploits as part of her process. Inevitably, because of the nature of this beast, Vos and Riseborough are going to be replaced as the key focal point of our attention by the actor playing the body she's stolen. Meanwhile, by framing it the way Cronenberg's framed it, we are never going to get more than five lines out of this other actor (Christopher Abbott) before his character shifts from "boyfriend of the daughter of an Internet magnate" to "Vos pretending to be the boyfriend of the daughter of an Internet magnate." It takes no special insight, though it seemed to have eluded Cronenberg, that this entails throwing his star into a hallucinated backdrop (at best) and allowing her place to be taken by a semi-nobody (I hate to be mean, but Abbott is incredibly bland here, and he tops out at "Mark Ruffalo, as run through a modelification machine"). It also means that he's charged his actors with a rather difficult challenge that he doesn't seem to much care about, which largely cancels out the character work that Riseborough's done on Vos's behalf (which isn't too more than physically-well-etched mopey assassin boilerplate, anyway), while giving Abbott no chance to develop his "Colin Tate" as anything more than a meat puppet in the first place. It's entirely possible that both Riseborough and Abbott did give Possessor their all, but I don't think it'd be noticeable if they did.
It also, I think, has a genre problem, and while it is only basic decency to spot any film or filmmaker the right to choose their fundamental approach to any material, Possessor makes it awful hard not to second-guess its creator. I mean, seriously: body-swapping assassins? From that brief sketch, I don't know what else you could think but "trashy sci-fi action thriller from 1995" (possibly starring Jean-Claude Van Damme in the Christopher Abbott role; hopefully directed by John Woo), and there is a persistent sense to Possessor that the problems it has would not even register as problems, if it weren't tilted instead toward a genre that Cronenberg inherited when he decided to pick up the family business, and toward a particular horror idiom that probably owes more to contemporary influences like Ari Aster than it does his father David. (The most truly "Cronenbergian" stuff is the industrial Gothic design of Vos's office and the use of some analogue-feeling props.) Either way, Possessor does everything it can to throw its bareboned poverty of character, plot, and even theme into the sharpest possible relief; Cronenberg's direction sucks the air out of everything, so that all you're left with is a persistent dourness shaped by droning music, portentously glossy shots of Toronto and inhumanely chilly domestic spaces, along with close-ups of actors who have been asked to look soulless and blank except for when they're asked to look crazy and confused.
Possessor doesn't have much more story than what's already contained in its logline, but it's best to be complete, so to get it out of the way: after an iffy mission to assassinate a lawyer, where Vos freezes instead of finishing the job properly, by blowing her host's (Gabrielle Graham's) head off—it's only the, ahem, thoroughness of the Toronto PD that permits her to properly disengage—Vos returns to her own body and gets checked out by her handler, Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Girder notes the problem, but nonetheless gives her an E for Effort, and some time off to decompress. Vos uses the opportunity to visit with her estranged husband (Rossif Sutherland) and son (Gage Graham-Arbuthnot), whom she has largely abandoned in order to pursue, well, whatever it is the benefits are of killing people for Girder, since Cronenberg in no way makes it plain what Vos gets out of the deal. Unfortunately, she's called right back into the office for another job, this time to kill John Parse (Sean Bean), the CEO of the biggest data mining company outside of the United States, by way of his daughter Ava's (Tuppence Middleton's) low-class and disfavored boyfriend, Colin. The mission profile involves making an ass out of Colin, demonstrating his "instability," before murdering both John and Ava in a fit of aggrievement, and Vos gets exactly that far before once again freezing and failing to put a cap in her own borrowed head—which runs out the clock and gives Colin the chance to reassert control over his body, just in time to see that he has, to all appearances, just killed his girlfriend and her dad. Worse, he's beginning to realize that he still has somebody else in here with him.
Critically, what Possessor does not do is seriously commit to this protagonist flip (it takes about 65 minutes to get to it, too—in other words, the first act eats up more than half of the runtime). Neither does it seem particularly keen on exploiting any of the possibilities of the wrong-man thriller this opens up, with Colin so confused and addled (understandably, but still) that he's basically incapable of doing anything until the screenplay essentially just gifts him with an awareness of how to strike back at his ghost-diving tormentor. (Possessor prefers to show rather than tell, which is admirable—it's not until Colin's kidnapped and implanted that we're allowed to infer a full explanation as to why they don't just body-snatch their actual targets—even if, by the same token, the practice of kidnapping folks and jamming mind-control technology into their skulls would seem to leave a very noticeable loose end for the authorities to trace. Anyway, whether its obfuscatory storytelling is actually admirable or not, it absolutely leaves some great, yawning gaps in the precise rules of the world it's built, and one gets suspicious that Cronenberg is slipping some real ripe bullshit through the cracks, since it never seems like Vos has much if any access to her victims' memories, so I don't know why it should go the other way. Well, it's also a movie where they can't just turn the machine off, for, y'know, reasons; still, I suppose that's nitpicking a little too hard.)
Regardless, once it finally does get to its major turn, Possessor kind of just runs out of juice, and it didn't even really have a lot to start with; it is fitting, I suppose, that Cronenberg has explained he was inspired to do the movie because the grind of a press junket put him into a mild dissociative state, which is about where Possessor lives, and moreover Possessor feels like an unformed high concept somebody came up with when they were daydreaming. The most surprising thing about it is how devoid of actual ideas that it turns out to be. I have still not, at this time, seen Cronenberg's debut feature, Antiviral, which was about folks intentionally infecting themselves with diseases curated from their favorite celebrities. I have not watched it in part because that sounds idiotic—a notion of satire so schematic and one-dimensional I simply don't have any compelling need to see it actually played out.
Now, I could be wrong: Antiviral was well-received as far as horror ephemera goes. It is not clear to me that this doesn't have a lot to do with Cronenberg's surname, but I will give it this: that is an idea. Possessor only has its premise, and barely even any elaborations upon that premise—the closest is that Riseborough has several scenes where she "gets into character" by allowing us to see the process by which she determines which "line read" will be the best, and once she even does it for herself, which is more like a suggestion of character psychology than an actual exploration of it—and this is also where that art horror idiom starts to fuck things up, as unpeople slog through a forty-page unscreenplay that, by the time we even really start it, is effectively already over but the crying. Even before this, the best Possessor has done is to sneak in some technological satire on the margins, principally with Colin's job at the Parses' "data mine," which involves an army of blue-collar workers physically looking over live surveillance footage of people's houses, ignoring their embarrassing unguarded behavior and sexy couplings in favor of cataloguing, for example, what kinds of curtains they've got. It's very whimsical (almost Gilliamesque), and it comes from nowhere and goes back to nowhere, and it's still not so clever I'm about to shit my pants over it—and it is still a more intriguing idea for a horror film qua horror film than, well, "body-snatching assassins."
Possessor is, to its credit, at least not boring. Cronenberg imposes a certain mood of dreadful curiosity that gets you through it—it's more boring to think about than it is to watch, which is a kind of compliment, I guess—and if nothing else, it has the courage of its cruelty, concluding with a genuinely nasty little twist that at least proves that Cronenberg was willing to pursue the bleak nihilism of his construct all the way to its bitter end. But "watchable" isn't exactly "exciting," or even "commendable." The closest thing in his father's filmography is probably Scanners—also basically just straightforward sci-fi schlock, no matter how much I love it—but smart, well-done schlock that introduced a new wrinkle with every scene, and the elder Cronenberg was obviously having fun with Scanners, taking his scenario to all of its gory, logical extremes. Brandon's movie, by contrast, just kind of runs in increasingly-dumb circles, its patterns broken pretty much solely by the freakout sequences he's built his story around.
At least they're good freakout sequences, deploying "experimental" filmmaking techniques that are, in their essentials, between a half century and three quarters of a century old now, but the old stuff is the old stuff because it works, so even if it works better when Panos Cosmatos does it, it's still legitimately grotesque and unsettling. But even at its best, it's not mind-blowing stuff, and neither that nor the ultraviolence (which seems as emotionally-muted as everything else, despite some effort expended on making it "intense") is going to justify something that comes off more like a resume line than a movie anybody was passionate about. Like, it'd be the best episode of Black Mirror season 5... but not by that much. The new flesh is a nepotism hire.
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