Brandon Cronenberg follows his debut feature, Antiviral, with an out-of-body bloodbath about skilled assassin Taysa Vos who uses brain-implant technology to possess other people’s bodies to commit murder. Ostensibly, these murders secure big corporate buyouts but regress Taysa mentally each time she returns.
She often considers giving it all up for a life with ex Michael and young son Ira. But Girder, her boss, coaxes her back into the role of a slippery assassin. “You’re the best I’ve got,” Girder says, and together they examine nostalgic objects after every kill to verify Taysa’s psychosis isn’t beyond repair.
Taysa fondles the framed box of a butterfly she crafted as a child. The memory is haunting but it keeps her at baseline. When she goes home to Michael and Ira, that same warmth evades her as the flashes of recent murders slice through the mundane moments they all share together. What becomes clear is Taysa’s unhappiness with family life, herself, and the way the world is.
She gets tasked with possessing an underdog corporate climber named Colin Tate, currently dating the daughter of wealthy tycoon John Parse. Parse is Tate’s dickish boss and Taysa’s new target. Taysa accepts what she expects to be her last job before hanging up the cape but — in typical assassin fashion — things go wrong.
Cronenberg manages to cook several different elements into this sticky suspense thriller that prevents it from feeling like something we’ve seen before. I was reminded of films like Flatliners or Jacob’s Ladder, but Cronenberg imbues a pulse that never stops moving, morphing, or bursting into something deliciously frightening and totally grotesque.
He doesn’t water down the story with expositional sci-fi drivel. We dive right in, gauging instantly a dystopian future ruled by greedy conglomerates overworking the underpaid middle-class.
We join Tate on an ordinary day at the office. He shuffles down grey corridors with a dozen other employees dressed in blue scrubs. At his station, he wears a VR headset and conducts maintenance reports for hours on end. It’s easy to see why Taysa finds murder so elevating in a world dictated by computer screens.
Sometimes the lack of world-building undercuts the tension. While it’s clear that Taysa prefers her gutsy profession to her cutesy family, what distinguishes her from other assassins is never conveyed. Girder calls her the best, but how do we know?
We also don’t know how much Michael knows of her job, and if he does know, whether or not it matters. Frequently, he just seems to miss her. No walk-in greeting of, “How was your day, hon? Kill a juicy one today?”
This makes her family a little inconsequential when she begins to question how much she even cares for them. Are they any more than symbols for a good, alternative lifestyle? Not really.
Thankfully, Parse’s dysfunctional royal family offers a stark contrast. An engaging scene sees Tate — possessed by Taysa — incite a fight with Parse that builds to a satisfying punch. Sean Bean plays Parse, and for a small part, he manages to soak up a lot of scenery.
But the absolute best of what Possessor offers are the disorienting sequences in which Taysa’s mind begins to meld with Tate’s. As one tries to overtake the other, the cerebral clash is visualized through stunning visuals, jarring cuts, and a distorting use of sound that plays like a dying animal screaming from the abyss. The human flesh effects are incredibly impressive and a nice throwback to the old Body Horror days where blow driers melted molded craniums to time-lapse.
And, as if that weren’t enough, Possessor has some gnarly kills guaranteed to top off your barf bag. Just listen for those pulpy sounds…they’ll make you cringe.
It’s worth mentioning too the pensive but impressive performances by Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbott. They technically play each other, and in some cases, one plays the other playing the other….playing the other? It gets complicated, but it’s never dull. Some would-be cheap scares become great traumatic performances thanks to the leads. Let’s just say that without these two, the film would plod on too long.
Possessor premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January of this year and is making its way (ever slower thanks to the pandemic) to limited cinemas. If you can catch it at home or wherever it’s sure to fulfill your Halloween season watchlist.