It has taken eight years for Brandon Cronenberg to create his second film and POSSESSOR is everything that fans of his first film could hope for and even more than they might have dreamed of.
POSSESSOR is the story of Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), a corporate assassin who works for Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in an unnamed and shadowy company. Tasya is a mom with a family that she’s separated from and who houses an unquiet spirit that her boss finds ever so useful. After one unnecessarily bloody assassination and an half-hearted attempt to reconcile with her husband and live a normal life, she immediately calls Girder to take up her next mission. She is implanted into a new body, but subtle cracks start to appear and she is ripped from her seat of control in the disturbed mind of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), a man that she has perhaps more in common with that anyone might think. Much more.
In POSSESSOR, Brandon Cronenberg is not playing. Antiviral is a self assured first feature that displayed not even a tiny attempt to pander to whatever audience might be out there. If possible, his second film is even more assured and less willing to give the audience what it wants. Cronenberg told me in an interview that while he has his own ideas about what the film’s meaning is, he welcomes both interpretation and to be challenged by those who see the film in ways that he might not agree with. He wants his film to provoke a conversation among the people who watch it. I’d say that he has succeeded. Wildly.
This review is compilation of my thoughts about POSSESSOR from the three screenings that I have attended. Yes, I’ve seen the film three times, twice at Sundance, and once at Beyond Fest’s West Coast premiere. Confidentially, I would love to see it again as soon as possible. The film kind of nibbles at my cerebrum each time I see it, each time different layers and possible meanings occur to me. For me, the film has huge re-watch value because there’s a lot of working parts and subrosa intentions in it. While Antiviral was a cold white room full of diseased love and suicidal devotion, POSSESSOR is a hall of distorted mirrors and carefully hidden trap doors that takes place partly in the repressed corridors of Tasya Vos’ mind with betrayal lurking behind each corner. Who the betrayer is is the question.
Tasya isn’t called an assassin in her workplace. It’s important to note that she is called a performer and many of the tasks that she is seen completing prior to her implantation into Colin are those that you might see an actor do while preparing. I’m sure that’s no accident, but it’s also a comment on how we all act some of the time and how our fear of others not being genuine with us informs our actions and behavior. Don’t fool yourself, we all wear masks and we all perform for others at times. The strictures of our human society and our own insecurities demand it.
Actors have a bad rap among civilians. Many people assume many things about us. One of the biggest and most damaging assumptions is that we are liars. People assume that acting is about lying, and for the actors who play act and fake cry, it is. But for the type of actor that you really want to watch, acting is about telling the truth and showing your real emotions in an imaginary setting. Many people and many actors find that to be very difficult, hence the play acting. What’s very interesting to me is that Tasya is performing all of the time, for everyone. She performs for her boss Girder when she tells her that everything is fine. She performs for her estranged husband and son. She even rehearses outside of the family home to seem more human and to be able to react in a normal and casual way. While she is rehearsing Colin’s mannerisms and vocal intonations, you have to wonder how much of Tasya is really left. She seems to desire human contact and normalcy, but seems unwilling or incapable of allowing it. She seeks her husband’s affection and then stoically endures his sexual attentions. Her face during this sex scene is a bottomless pit. There’s something missing in Tasya and nearly everything that she has she ultimately rejects. Restless and unmoored, she is a time bomb waiting to go off, taking larger and larger risks simply because she can. Has she become a thrill seeker or is she daring fate to destroy her?
Is Tasya damaged in some fundamental way? Is this just who she is? Is it that she is seeking a deeper connection with her loved ones, perhaps one like the connection she has with her hosts? Those are all questions that the film leaves you to answer yourself.
For a hardened killer, Tasya is a person who is constantly enveloped in fear.
But are we all Tasya to a certain extent? When we arbitrarily reject people, situations and ultimately versions of ourselves, are we twisting reality and our conception of ourselves? Who we think we are or who we really are? There is a difference. How does that alter the fabric of not just our life, but our reality? Of the communal reality? What is choice? Did we make the right one? What are we looking for? With so many choices, how could we not be overwhelmed? Many people can’t even commit to choosing a movie on Netflix. Could contemplating infinite versions of ourselves not drive us crazy? Then it goes back to Lovecraft, where one glimpse of the true nature of the Universe and the reality of what we are in it could crush us. How even the smallest glimpse of it could drive any one of us stark raving mad.
“We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.”
Or as said by Charlie in Mean Streets.
It’s all bullshit except the pain. The pain of hell. The burn from a lighted match increased a million times. Infinite. Now, ya don’t fuck around with the infinite. There’s no way you do that. The pain in hell has two sides. The kind you can touch with your hand; the kind you can feel in your heart… your soul, the spiritual side. And ya know… the worst of the two is the spiritual.
Spiritual or emotional pain, like the pain of emptiness and longing for something you don’t have is much worse than any fleeting physical pain. Tasya lives in a state of spiritual pain and unrest. She doesn’t seem to have conventional morality and her lack of emotional attachment makes her “work” possible. Girder tells her that they have worked together on her “special nature” and it reminds me of the concept of becoming. That through her work on the assassinations, and with Girder as her guide, she is being trained and is slowly discarding her humanity and who she is to reach an idealized form or level. Make no mistake, Tasya is a corporate serial killer. She not only kills her target, but when she shoots her host to be pulled out, she has murdered, minimum, two people. It’s easy to be lulled into the idea that it’s suicide, but it’s not. Tasya is pulled out and the host is left to die and take the blame. None of these people volunteered to be used as weapons, they are victims, just like the assassination’s target. They are being used and discarded carelessly, like someone would dump a weapon after a murder. This is one of the subtle genius moves of the script and director. Even I had that idea in my brain at the outset. You accept it because you accept Tasya as being that person and that her actions are their actions. The movie and its characters exist outside of our conceptual moral standards you would think, but then again, maybe not.
It seemed to have disturbed a fellow critic that the first host was a black woman, as if the film’s creators had an adverse intention. I believe the opposite is true. The film shows, as one of its themes, how corporations use people to gain power and just as easily dump them once their value is used up. If anything, in selecting someone who is not white, it underlines the monstrous nature of corporations and their uncaring use of human lives, especially those that they would not consider valuable. Why? Because that’s what corporations do. Their victims are frequently the people who lack the means or power to fight back, namely the disadvantaged who frequently are people of color. It’s the business form of classism. When Girder gleefully announces Tasya’s new contract while casually applying lotion to her hands, you can see that she doesn’t think of this in terms of the human cost, but only of the power that she and the company will gain. Note that all of the company’s employees are white people. She’s using Tasya too, of course, and doesn’t have any more true concern for Vos’ well being outside of being able to control her weapon of choice. Corporations even use their own.
Of course, this could be less complicated than anyone realizes. Perhaps Cronenberg, like George Romero before him, simply chose the best actor for the role.
As Tasya, Andrea Riseborough gives a twisted shape to a type of person who seems emotionless and detached, but has more beneath her placid and bruised surface than first meets the eye. You can see her trying to please everyone else in her life and never understanding what’s wrong. She is a vessel for everyone else’s desires and because she spends all her time being the woman that others want her to be, she never knows herself. She can’t decide what she really wants and tries to conform to the ideas of who she should be, but harbors a rising rage within her that threatens her own existence. While everything seems fine on the surface, the trauma of who she is and what she does is eating away at her soul. She has locked herself out of the very things she things she may think she wants so badly. She is unable to face herself and let herself be vulnerable and the work is making it worse as she builds emotional walls to protect herself. Riseborough’s eyes leak terror, torment, and guilt and watching her penned up emotions bang against the walls she’s put up to contain them is frightening. It’s that sadness that makes her rage all the more dangerous. The sadness fuels the rage. The irony is that her ability to meld with others is something that could make her wishes come true, but she can only do it in the context of murder.
It’s important to note that while Tasya is implanted in both of her hosts, Colin and Holly (Gabrielle Graham), have to play themselves as Tasya. It’s fiendishly difficult acting feat that I discussed with Riseborough and Abbott in a Sundance interview. Christopher Abbott does a marvelous job of being Tasya/Colin and, when he grabs control back, screaming for an explanation of what Tasya has done to him. There’s a similar ray of pain and desperation that shoots from his eyes. While actors are trained to play people that they are not, the role calls for the actors to play the character as two people. One who is in control, but not the owner of that body, and the person who the body belongs to and who is under the surface, unable to do anything about it. How fiendishly difficult is it? Well, just trying to type that sentence to describe it bent my mind a little bit, so playing it believably, especially when Colin grabs control away from Tasya, is not easy. Colin himself is, much like Tasya, a dissatisfied and angry person. He’s a drug dealer who has a rich and powerful fiancée, Ava Parse (Tuppence Middleton) who doesn’t seem to have much respect for him as a human being. She’s controlling and one of her friends tells him that it’s okay for them to sleep together because “Ava doesn’t care”. Once again, it’s the pain of being used and lack of true human connection at work. The fear of being used by someone who claims to love you. There’s also the edge of classism again. Colin’s situation among the wealthy and arrogant that he was admitted to because he is considered good and useful enough to be utilized for the time being. Ava’s father, John Parse (Sean Bean) doesn’t even bother to veil his contempt for Colin.
Another thing that stood out to me so much that I did mention it to Cronenberg when I interviewed him is that how human beings find themselves in situations, relationships, marriages, jobs, that they feel they must participate in and that our animal drives compel us into and we later find ourselves unhappy with once the dopamine and the rush of emotion wear off. The societal structures that we are compelled into by social pressure and familial expectations. Is love just a chemical reaction and are our emotions real when they are so changeable. When suddenly one day you can wake up and loathe the person beside you and resent the children you brought into the world. Such pressures have driven people to desperate acts time and again. I was struck by this idea as the film ended. Just how many sources does Tasya’s rage have? Who is she really angry with? Does she just want someone to “pull her out” without taking the responsibility of doing it herself and facing the hurt that she would cause to the people she no longer loves? There is the case of Laci and Scott Peterson. Many times I have heard the question asked? Why didn’t he just get a divorce? The answer is that he couldn’t do it himself. He lacked the courage to face up to the situation he himself had chosen. Emotionally immature and filled with guilt, he thought it would be easier to kill his wife than to admit that he was selfish and no longer wished to be part of his marriage with a baby on the way. To admit that he had wanted someone else and that he wasn’t the man everyone, including his wife, thought he was. Remember that, during the mission, Tasya was unable to pull the trigger to release herself. She had to have someone else do it.
Our need to be polite and follow the rules causes us to repress or suppress our wants and desires. Repressing your emotions does not make them go away, it simply makes them smolder until they burst in flames. Everything is fine until that suppressed resentment at being denied what you want finds another outlet.
Another disturbing and very well done aspect of the acting performances is watching the characters, as Tasya inside of them, use a machine to dial the emotions and ranges of expressions up or down as a calibration exercise. Watching their emotions being manipulated believably is something that leads to some unpleasant thoughts about our own natures. It’s chilling to watch human emotions tuned like a radio dial. It leads you to those questions that are too big or too unpleasant for our minds to contemplate for too long.
But even with Colin, Ava and John Parse, the idea of corporations using humans for whatever they can get is there as well. Colin is a drone working for John Parse’s company which is involved in surveillance. They collect the footage from people’s homes and catalog seemingly minor details like curtains. It’s data mining and a hideous invasion of privacy for the shadowy purposes of making money or maybe more. They are exploiting the cameras in peoples homes to sell them more product or what else? We are always being watched. Colin’s mind is deemed worthy only of describing Venetian blinds in a home. Human beings as worker bees. Colin is there to collect the information and to service the queen bee who likes to choke him during sex. It’s a little bit of irony that the family name is parse.
POSSESSOR is a very violent film, both emotionally and physically, and does not shy away from the graphic nature of violence or murder. Sexuality is presented in a very matter of fact way, with graphic images of naked flesh set right in front of you without comment. The camera doesn’t leer at either sex or nudity, it merely presents it. The lack of the standard “male gaze” is refreshing and admirable. Women aren’t sex objects, in fact, women lead the film and are some of its most aggressive characters. The reason the violence and sexuality in the film has the impact that it has is because it is tied to the emotions of the actors. When Tasya, as Holly or as Colin, attacks the target, you can feel the the expression of hatred or the resentment that the host feels towards the victim. It’s almost as if Tasya’s rage has met its match and that she is not only expressing her anger, but that of the host as well. It’s a fusion of both of their seething wells of resentment and their vengeful selves. The Becoming.
Tasya is special, but so is Colin. As the host, the company has underestimated Colin as the power that he actually is and the force that he and Tasya are together.
The film is special. While it is packed full of ideas and psychological and sociological themes, it never seems too busy. The script renders the wholly fantastical central concept as a fait accompli and is a streamlined phantom of forward motion. Some movies and TV shows breathe heavily pushing the stone of explication up that hill, but Cronenberg simply presents his creation as such a mesmerizing package that you can’t really object or call foul. Like a passive Tasya on the table, you accept the barrage of images and information like a nerve ending accepting neurological data. The audience also becomes the conduit and the agent. His direction is without flaw. Everything is in its place. His grasp of the ideas and his guiding hand with the actors is subtle, but strong like an agent inside of the body of a host. His cinematographer is Karim Hussain, who has worked on Cronenberg’s previous feature and short film, Please Speak Continuously and Describe Your Experiences As They Come To You as well as Hobo With a Shotgun and one of my favorite TV shows, Hannibal. The special effects and gore are done as practical effects and in camera rather than CGI and I think that the film is that much better for it. It adds a texture that the film needs. There’s one spectacular effect that recalls a particular fascination of Lucio Fulci and it’s a truly worthy piece of gore. I felt like applauding and raising my arms in horror at the same time. Cronenberg does prefer using those type of effects and he has discovered the virtue of finding things that you would not normally discover as part of the practical and in camera process if you simply handled effects in post. He knows that sometimes the process and mistakes gives you those gifts you might never have found on your own.
The acting of the ensemble cast was a real pleasure to behold. As I am so rarely am able to say, there are no weak links. People are manipulative and grouchy, arrogant and nasty, selfish and emotionally unavailable. Just like real life. They assume things and misunderstand each other and vie for control in most situations. There’s a really emotionally grounded feeling to the ensemble that is believable and familiar to the eye that is also appropriate for the thematic content. That’s why you really feel that violence, in your gut. It’s got real hatred behind it. There’s a thread of dark humor that runs through the piece as well and I feel somewhat sure that this might be the first film that consciously made use of a meme through casting. I won’t say more than that. I had a real chuckle over it though. There’s probably something wrong with me.
The story circles and returns to starting points. The father and the daughter, the father and the son. The guests who won’t leave the party. It suggests something that’s come up in Agatha Christie’s Curtain, that most attempts at manipulation are crass and overt, but true manipulators can coerce others to do their bidding by suggestion. In the Christie novel, there are murders that each have clear suspects who are punished, but they are not guilty, much like in this film. The killer wears the perfect disguise. This train of thought leads to the even more sinister possibility that the unconscious mind might set a series of actions in motion to achieve an end result that the conscious mind would reject. In effect, that you are manipulating yourself or others to do what you really want them to do, but you could never voice that desire. You could never admit that you want certain people dead, but the voice of your repressed subconscious screams for their blood.
The hall that contains the distorted mirror that Colin stares into and sees Tasya staring back out at him. His twin and his dark passenger. Mirror images of each other filled with violence and grief.
I could go on and on and on. It pains me to stop talking about POSSESSOR. Without a doubt, it is the best film of the year, and while there are other films that I feel are also exceptional, POSSESSOR takes the crown. 2020 is a bad year for anyone who likes going outside, but it is a spectacularly good year for film, especially experimental, genre, and horror film. The beauty of POSSESSOR and Brandon Cronenberg’s achievement is that the ideas matter. The psychological terror evoked masterfully by Cronenberg, the cast, and the crew is unmatched. People call this a mindfuck as shorthand and indeed it is. Style, craft, technical prowess and sheer defiant will to create are on display here. I haven’t even talked about the soundtrack yet, and I really dig Jim Williams work on A Field In England and the other Ben Wheatley films as well as Julia Ducournau’s Raw nor did I really dig into the depth of the cinematography both of which are phenomenal, but I’ve got to stop obsessing about this. That shot flying through the air towards the building at a slight angle is dope though. I suppose that it is POSSESSOR’s finest achievement and a work of art’s highest recommendation. You can’t stop obsessing about it. Even those who don’t get that far into it are going to have the visceral reaction of horror at the violence and human ugliness on display and, in that, the film still succeeds. You have been touched. You have been manipulated. It found that spot in you and pressed it with glee.
One way or another, you will lose control.