Director: Brandon Cronenberg
London Film Festival 2020 review
Bringing new meaning to the phrase, “corporations are people,” Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor is a dazzling evocation of late-stage capitalism’s all-consuming reach, not just for how it taps into our most paranoid fears about the Alexa on our desk or the camera on our laptop, but also for the way it channels the suffocating sense of efficiency that’s come to define our work and leisure. It’s a film characterised by oppressively sleek surfaces and screens within screens, not to mention a series of shockingly violent eruptions, born of the animal urges that Possessor’s sanitised environment seeks to contain.
On paper, the plot reads a little like one of Christopher Nolan’s high-concept espionage thrillers, though Cronenberg’s film goes a fair bit further than Inception or Tenet in exploring the more sinister implications of its sci-fi premise. The “possessor” in question is Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), an assassin who inhabits the bodies of various unsuspecting citizens through the use of brain implant technology as a covert means of carrying out her hits. Her latest assignment sees her hijack the brain and body of one Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott) in order to take out his boss, business giant John Parse (Sean Bean).
From this creepy set-up, Cronenberg brings cynical corporate strategizing to its logical extreme, reducing human beings to targets and assets to be dissected, monitored, manipulated and ultimately disposed of. Just as Colin’s job requires him to collect data for personalised ads by spying on people through their computer cameras, Tasya is herself a corporate surveillant of sorts, masking her intentions behind a literal human face. Adding another layer of irony to the situation is the fact that both Colin and Tasya are themselves being constantly monitored as they do their respective jobs, allowing their respective supervisors to assess their performances with stress-inducing efficiency.
This emphasis on control extends to Tasya’s personal life, in which she finds herself growing increasingly alienated from her husband Michael (Rossif Sutherland) and son Ira (Gage Graham-Arbuthnot). Through an early scene, in which Tasya rehearses what to say before reuniting with her family, we see that her home life has become every bit the role-play that her various work personas are, while a series of bloody visions from past hit jobs suggests that the line between these different states of being is beginning to blur. This identity crisis grows all the more disorienting once Colin starts to fight back for control of his own body, to the point where it isn’t always clear which of the brain’s two inhabitants is the one making the decisions.
All the while, this struggle for agency is punctuated by a series of vibrant, hallucinogenic visuals that convey both Tasya’s collapsing sense of self and the violent impulses that she seems only capable of exploring when she’s living in someone else’s skin. Though Tasya is usually seen to carry a gun during her missions, it’s telling that she frequently resorts to more intimate methods of killing, be it a knife or a fire poker. Considering the dispiritingly sterile aesthetic that consumes every other part of Tasya’s calculated existence, the excessive bloodshed permitted by her job resonates as a cathartic display of misdirected passion, as though the physical act of murder provides a rare moment of intense tangibility in the midst of such a slippery reality.
In these moments, it’s tempting to interpret Cronenberg’s bleak yet invigorating film as a partial act of meta-commentary that reflects how we too might immerse ourselves in violent media as a momentary escape from the confines of our own lives and bodies. Of course, when Tasya chooses to step into a new life and engage in some therapeutic bloodshed, her actions prove a lot more consequential than your average evening of gory entertainment, but when your entire reality is little more than a ruthless game played between competing companies, there’s only so much remorse you can feel when some of your fellow pieces get knocked off the board.