If the sight of a brain implant being plugged into a bloody hole in someone’s skull isn’t for you; if seeing a neck and a chest cavity get stabbed repeatedly and in close-up isn’t for you; if racialized cop shootings in movies aren’t for you — let’s just say the opening minutes of Possessor will be rough.
But to miss them would be to miss out on something essential. Directed by Brandon Cronenberg (son of body horror legend David Cronenberg), this warped thriller opens with a job being carried out: a ruthless murder soon revealed to be a hired hit carried out by a powerful corporation. The person doing all that stabbing isn’t the movie’s heroine, Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), however; she’s a younger black woman whose mind and body Tasya has hijacked. And so: the blood and guts, the cops showing up, the inevitable consequences. It’s hard to watch. It’s also exactly the kind of violence that’s been wearing this remote-control killer down — violence to which she has a front seat every day. Who are we to complain?
The stabby opening minutes are, it turns out, the beginning of a breakdown. Tasya works for a corporation that carries out high-tech assassinations. They’ve developed a tech that allows them to plug into subjects’ brains and use their bodies to carry out the hits. Then they unplug, preferably in a way that leaves no one behind to face the consequences. So: not exactly a 9-to-5.
And Tasya, when we finally see her as herself, is clearly being worked half to death. She’s the star agent, after all; she gets the big, difficult assignments. Hers is a profession that demands total personal compartmentalization as well as complete control over her subjects. Except for the body snatching, she’s reminiscent of your usual movie assassin, trained to kill undercover with a limit her personal ties, lest those pesky emotions get in the way of her work.
Obviously, just as in spy movies, things don’t work out that way. Though tasked with doing the inhuman, Tasya is very much human. The bulk of Possessor takes what we glean about the numbing brutality of her job from this opening incident and forces us to expect the worst for what comes next: another kill-for-hire, this time with a corporate power play in mind. Her new target is a man named Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), a nobody who married a somebody — his first mistake. Suffice it to say this mission seems troubled from the start.
It’s probably no accident that Cronenberg’s movie calls to mind films like Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, albeit sans an extraterrestrial man-eater come to sample all the good eats in England. Rather, it’s in the way that it concerns itself with the theft and possession of human bodies, and how its heroine is, if not alien, completely alienated from her own self. Before walking up to the home where she once lived — she and her husband are separated — Tasya stops to rehearse how to greet her family. She’s practicing how to sound “normal,” in the same way she rehearses the speech patterns of the people whose bodies she has to inhabit.
Even the act of coming back into herself requires a ritual. Her boss, Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who once starred in the elder Cronenberg’s classic eXistenZ), takes notes as Tasya talks through a collection of previously assembled personal objects, each with specific meanings and memories attached to the real her. It’s not the most original idea, and Cronenberg’s vision of some aspects of Tasya’s life — she’s a bad party guest, emotionally absent from her spouse during sex, pushed continually into the frame’s corners and apart from everyone around her — feel familiar. But Possessor makes up for it by thinking more thoroughly through the banalities of the Tasya’s actual job, which means taking on other peoples’ banal, everyday messes. Her latest subject is a low-level employee at a data mining company; one of the most intriguing scenes in the movie features Tasya, as Colin, doing drudge work akin to content moderation. All screen time, no peace.
In this scene and others, Cronenberg, aided by cinematographer Karim Hussain, ably sinks his teeth into the inhuman eeriness at the movie’s center with well-timed POV shots and shallow-focus trickery. They aren’t reinventing the wheel with these images. But the out-of-bodiness you feel from the filmmaking is almost more unsettling than the actual story. It’s pure cinematic dysmorphia: to watch this movie carefully is to feel completely out of place, right alongside the people onscreen.
Nothing the camera can do is as much of an asset as Andrea Riseborough, however; as violent and ghoulish and messy as the movie gets, she emerges as the most powerful thing here. Gosh, is she unnerving — and captivating. You can put her through a movie’s usual motions, and she’ll still find a way to steal your attention, while evoking parallel feelings about the roles she plays in her life. There’s blankness, distance, and other side effects of the job. But there’s also the heaviness. A sunken, wary exhaustion, like she’s been emptied out.
Possessor gives her a shocked-blonde helmet of hair and, at specific moments, plays up her paleness and finds the caverns under her eyes. It comes off cold, but not brittle: there’s steel here. Abbott is strong, too, and gets the alienness of his own body — which belongs to Tasya — just right. Even then, watching him, I kept thinking of Riseborough, of the peculiar discomfort radiating from her every gesture. At her darkest, she has a way of making you feel like you’re staring right into the pit of a person. In Possessor’s case, that’s because we are.