❉ A gripping and expertly directed slice of freak-out-cinema that will delight adventurous viewers.
Brandon Cronenberg’s new icky-drippy, ultra-heady sci-fi/horror hybrid Possessor opened in select theatres earlier this fall, and is now finding its way to various online streaming platforms as a premium Home Premiere release. It feels like a film tailor-made for our current pandemic-times; a squirmy and anxious thriller that preys on expectations and constantly subverts those various anticipations, and which never provides any true sense of comfort, no matter how kinkily playful the filmmaking might be. After debuting at the most recent Sundance Film Festival, the film has been greeted with excellent critical notices, and my guess is that a very passionate cult following will ensue, as Cronenberg has made good on the promise of his creepy 2012 debut, Antiviral, and has now considerably upped his game in all departments.
Possessor contains shades of classic genre cinema (think Strange Days meets The Cell meets Inception) while ultimately becoming something singularly all its own. Drenched in blood and gore but never forgetting about the virtues of intelligent storytelling, this gorgeously crafted piece of work contains sequences of low-tech ingenuity (those transformations!) that blows away big-budget, CGI-laden nonsense. Cinematographer Karim Hussain’s luscious imagery contains some of the most striking visual moments of the year, and yet, for as spectacular as the entire film is on a technical level, it’s always in service of a strong narrative, that feels like it has something exciting to say about the way people organize and compartmentalize their thoughts, and how mind and body control are intrinsically inked to the Cronenberg Cinematic Family DNA.
The action revolves around a emotionally and physically tired corporate agent (Andrea Riseborough, always looking different, always doing superlative work) employed by a shady company who uses brain-control technology to inhabit someone’s psyche and body, thus turning them into an unwitting assassin for hire. It’s most certainly a nifty premise – you literally cannot control yourself from becoming a lethal killing machine – and make no mistake – Cronenberg takes full advantage of his set-up, and delivers the goods all throughout. The agent’s most recent target, an influential man (played by the commanding and mysterious actor Christopher Abbot) with big-business family connections which equal millions of dollars, represents a physical and psychological challenge that she might not be prepared for. Jim William’s unsettling musical score sets an ominous vibe from the start, and never falters.
Cronenberg explores themes relating to identity and race, the importance of self-worth, and the role of the existential impostor within society, and through his carefully constructed mise-en-scene, delivers a gripping and expertly directed slice of freak-out-cinema that will delight adventurous viewers, especially those with strong stomachs. He’s got his father’s gift for gonzo-violence, but also shares his love for cerebral concepts, and while it will be very hard for critics to separate father and son when comparing the films that they’ve made, Brandon Cronenberg, whether he intended it or not, with the high-concept and pint-point execution of Possessor, now invites comparison to Christopher Nolan. I’d love to see what Cronenberg could do if he was given an unlimited amount of money and all of the creative latitude that he could ever want.
❉ Signature Entertainment presents Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor on Digital HD 1 February and Blu-ray and DVD 8 February 2021.
❉ Nick Clement is a journalist for Variety Magazine and motion picture screenplay consultant, as well as a critic for websites We Are Cult and Back to the Movies. He wrote the introduction to the book Double Features: Big Ideas in Film, which was published by The Great Books Foundation, and is currently working on a book about the life and work of filmmaker Tony Scott. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and son.