Review: Possessor

Brandon Cronenberg’s sci-fi thriller will be, as one critic whose name escapes me at the moment once said of another film, “strong meat” for a lot of people. Extremely violent and cynical about our present capitalist situation, the movie posits an alternative universe that sees assassination as a viable corporate venture, and while assassins have become a trite commonplace of both popular and art house cinema, the ones in Possessor are particularly difficult to empathize with.

Cronenberg is the son of David Cronenberg, the Canadian filmmaker who has probably done more for the hybrid sci-fi/horror genre than anyone in film history. Brandon is more playful than his father but in treating the assassination scenes as if they were style challenges he ratchets up the disgust factor to a level that transcends the typical body horror David made into an art form. For one thing, the actual assassins are “possessed” by a remote host who controls them, thus they are killing against their will; but Cronenberg adds an extra layer of terror by making the possessor, in this case a young woman named Tasya (Andrea Riseborough), repelled by her task. She is the horror-show equivalent of a corporate tech engineer with a very specific skills set. In the opening scene, a black woman marches into a high-scale restaurant and proceeds to disembowel a rich white man with a steak knife under the supervision of Tasya, who is writhing in agony in a kind of submerged coffin back in her company lair. Even beyond the loaded subtext of a black person murdering a white person at the behest of another white person, the sequence practically normalizes the whole concept of killing by proxy.

But once you get that concept Possessor has no real place to go except into the realm of the macabre. Tasya’s own supervisor (Jennifer Jason Leigh) also has Tasya’s talents but seems much less pained about the moral dimensions of her job. We soon figure out that they work for a corporate entity that carries out elaborate contract killings, the more elaborate the better. A good part of the running time is devoted to the task of inhabiting the mind of Tate (Christopher Abbott), a drug kingpin who is about the marry the daughter of Parse (Sean Bean), a rich data raider, in order to make him kill his future father-in-law so that the relative who is paying for the hit can move up the inheritance list. Explaining this subterfuge while creating a repugnantly impressionistic visualization of Tasya’s struggle for Tate’s mind is somewhat beyond Cronenberg’s own skills set, though he does come up with some wildly surreal ideas about what goes on in the lower depths of the brain. And the scenes where we can recognize Tasya’s “consciousness” steering Tate’s actions are as creepy as anything in Cronenberg pere’s ouevre.
Still, the people who will want to see Possessor are those who enjoy the clinical depiction of what violence can do to the human body. The horror elements on display have an emotional component that often feels cold and thus the displacement is doubly terrifying. The movie is a series of visceral nightmares acted out by individuals who are not really themselves, but get to watch themselves do awful things.
Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551).

Possessor home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2019 Rhombus Possessor Inc./Rook Films Possessor Ltd.

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