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By Mallory Andrews
If it’s true that Brandon Cronenberg sought to cheekily poke fun at his father David’s needle-phobia in his first film (Antiviral, 2011), it feels like parts of Possessor might have been engineered specifically to make my skin crawl. I would say I have a fairly stern stomach when it comes to horror-movie gore, yet somehow the younger Cronenberg’s new film manages to not only hit my most squeamish of triggers, it luxuriates in them. But the images that stick in Possessor are not of ultraviolence: they’re the surreal, dreamlike eruptions that punctuate its techno-thriller narrative.
Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is an assassin working for an agency that deals in technologically advanced corporate espionage. She carries out her assignments by temporarily taking over the mind and body of someone close to the intended target by plugging into a machine—an idea that, conceptually, lands somewhere between similar tech seen in The Matrix (1999) and Avatar (2009)—and using the possessed person to carry out a murder/suicide. It’s a method that’s meant to leave no trace of evidence linking the killer to her target. However, the thing that makes her good at her job becomes her biggest liability. Vos’ natural ability to fully “get into character” while being inside the heads of others lands her the agency’s most high-profile assignments. Her current task targets John Parse (Sean Bean), the CEO of a shady neo-futuristic data-mining company, requiring her to assume the identity of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), a low-level employee of the company who is dating Parse’s daughter, Ava (Tuppence Middleton). Vos’ ability to immerse herself in her work proves her undoing when Tate, stronger-willed than expected, fights back for control over his body.
Riseborough is always a welcome presence, though her time onscreen is fleeting given the film’s conceit (Possessor might make a good gruesome double-bill with Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy , in which the actress’ appearance is similarly central yet brief). Her take on Vos is of a self in flux, as each interface experience, and the intensity with which she gets into character, destabilizes her hold on her psyche. Styled with bleached white hair and a nearly translucent complexion, she is like a blank canvas upon which any number of alternate identities can imprint themselves. It’s Abbott who has to carry the brunt of the film as both Tate and Vos-as-Tate, to the latter of which he brings a prickly feminine edge. It’s inhabiting Tate that brings Vos closer to her truest self.
A review of the film in Indiewire out of Sundance posited that the lack of interest in outlining any of the backstory of the agency and the rules that govern it made Possessor seem less like a self-contained feature than a TV pilot setting up mysteries to fill out entire season—as if presenting us with all the answers is the one thing that separates movies from TV. If anything, it only separates good movies from bad movies….and Possessor isn’t bad. There’s much to enjoy about the film’s sci-fi setting, with Toronto’s dreary glass-and-steel brutalism standing in for a mildly dystopian metropolis—or perhaps Toronto is playing a version of itself? I spotted an unmistakable interior of Dupont Station and Tate’s day job is, hilariously, located at the city’s Canadian Broadcasting Corporation headquarters (admittedly, the aggressive red-and-black checkerboard design of the facade is aesthetically suited to housing evil empires). We’re not given an exact time or place, but Possessor’s is a vision of the future that has retained an anachronistic mix of analogue and digital. Tate’s office VR headgear allows him to surreptitiously peer into the homes of strangers via their webcams, yet look like a pair of goggles straight out of ’70s retro-futurist art, or even something that could have been manufactured by Spectacular Optical from Videodrome (1983).
I’m hesitant to bring up the elder Cronenberg’s work, even in the context of viewing Possessor, but it is perhaps unavoidable. The genre genes of Videodrome are undeniable here, as well as the body-porting/identity-swapping from eXistenZ (1999)—with Jennifer Jason Leigh even porting over from the latter film as Vos’ handler, Girder. Mediation and media manifest as body horror and more mundane evils. (Whose privacy is John Parse’s company intruding upon? Likely those who didn’t read their “Terms and Agreements” forms too carefully.) But Possessor scratches at something deeper than skin. Vos and Tate’s violent struggle for control, shown through an escalating series of dizzying visions and hallucinations of melting waxen skin as Vos uses Tate’s body to carry out horrific acts, uncovers the disturbing sublimated desires that each of them have been denying in themselves. Abject horror and desire stem from a similar impulse that both repulses and attracts at the same time (and similarly, though I watched the bloodiest parts of Possessor through my fingers, I couldn’t entirely bring myself to look away). Technology is not the cause but the means for these desires to be expressed. In other words, the call is coming from inside the house.
If anything, I wish Possessor had gone further down the rabbit hole on the concept of identity slippage, desire, and privilege. There are intriguing gestures towards the alienness of embodying another gender—Vos’ first moments inside Tate are simultaneously disorienting and fascinating to her, as she takes the time to examine her new masculine body and member. Perhaps even more pressingly, the sequence that introduces the interfacing technology has Vos inhabit the body of a young Black woman. The implications are provocative, especially given how Vos deliberately puts that body in danger, but the conceit is used as merely introductory world-building rather than anything more substantial. Possessor adheres so intently to the conflict it sets up between Vos and Tate that it ends up lacking any curiosity about the complex ideas it’s working with.
Still, Cronenberg’s germ of a thesis in Possessor about the precarious boundaries between our various identities is still one that I find compelling despite the film’s shortcomings in fully exploring them. My work-self and my home-self are now a single work-from-home self, an uncomfortable fusion that has only been exacerbated by constant technological surveillance and mediation. I’ve finally committed to shopping for a proper desk and chair set-up, as the months of working long hours on the couch have made my joints feel like they are decaying at an alarming rate. Idle browsing for office furniture has, of course, tipped off the algorithms data-mining my web history for information. As my social media accounts fill with ads for sales at IKEA and sponsored articles about work/life balance, I find myself thinking about my former co-worker who studiously kept a piece of tape over her webcam for fear of being spied on, and I wonder who, if anyone, might be peering at me through mine right now…and what does he think of my curtains?