Possessor sends Andrea Riseborough out of her mind

Brandon Cronenberg keeps it in the family with his second feature, a visually arresting and bloodthirstily brutal body horror.

26 November 2020

By Anton Bitel

Andrea Riseborough as Tasya Vos in Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor
Sight and Sound

Possessor is available to stream on BFI Player, Curzon Home Cinema, Amazon Prime and other platforms from 27 November, and released on Blu-ray and DVD on 8 February 2021.

“When did you get so clever?” asks Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) in an early scene from Possessor, as her young son Ira (Gage Graham-Arbuthnot) shows how he can use his laptop to choreograph the movements of a toy figurine.

The apple, it seems, has not fallen far from the tree – for Tasya is herself an expert puppeteer, using neural implants and consciousness-synching technology to enter other people’s bodies remotely and manipulate them into performing assassinations that cannot be traced back to her or the shadowy organisation that employs her.

The very wording of Tasya’s question – more the sort of thing that an aunt or a grandmother, rather than a mother, might be expected to say – marks Tasya’s estrangement from her husband Michael (Rossif Sutherland) and Ira. Yet although the pressures – and secrecy – of her work have led to Tasya’s separation from Michael, between assignments Tasya keeps being drawn back home, where her already crumbling sense of humanity and self still has its firmest foundations.

Tasya’s family are her anchor, and she tries to keep the different, contradictory parts of her identity – wife, mother, sociopathic killer – compartmentalised, even as her psyche gradually fragments from the trauma of assuming so many identities and of murdering so many people. 

Possessor (2020)

If Ira seems a chip off the old block, then the same might be said of writer-director Brandon Cronenberg, who appears to relish adapting his father David’s brand of freaky futurism to today’s world. Like his feature debut Antiviral (2012), Cronenberg Jr’s follow-up Possessor shows a close affinity, both thematic and stylistic, to the filmmaking of his father.

There is so much associated with the Cronenberg legacy that can be found in Possessor – cut-throat corporate skulduggery, weird sci-fi tech, body horror, mannered character names, extreme violence and ‘new flesh’ (here literalised).

The biggest influence is Cronenberg Sr’s eXistenz (1999), which is similarly concerned with assassins who risk losing themselves in the personae that they adopt as their gaming ‘skins’ – and that film’s lead actress Jennifer Jason Leigh is here cast as Tasya’s handler Girder, a once skilled Possessor now determined to pass down the mantle to the next generation.

As part of her debriefing after each disorienting mission, Tasya is shown a collection of objects to test the integrity of her memory. “I killed and mounted it one summer when I was a girl, and then I felt guilty about it,” she says of a framed butterfly, adding, “I still feel guilty about it.”

The harming of animals is often regarded as an early warning sign of psychopathy in children, but Tasya’s abiding compunction about what she has done reveals a contrasting empathy, to which she clings. Girder believes that the professional work of her star asset is compromised by her continuing family attachments, and would prefer Tasya to lose all affect and embrace her inner psychopath – and by the end, Girder may get what she wants.

Christopher Abbott as Colin Tate

The conflict within Tasya reaches crisis point when she is hired to take out data-mining CEO John Parse (Sean Bean) and his daughter Ava (Tuppence Middleton) as part of a succession coup. Tasya will enter the body of Ava’s strong-willed if confused fiancé Colin Tate (an extraordinary Christopher Abbott), who comes with his own inner conflicts – and in executing her mission, Tasya will find herself at odds with both Colin and herself, as his body proves a chrysalis from which something different will emerge.

Lit in bright, sickly hues, and with the scenes between Tasya and Colin unfolding in an uncanny interzone of distorted masks and psychedelic abstractions, Possessor is as visually arresting as it is at times bludgeoningly brutal. While the kind of mind-transfer that drives its plot is pure science fiction, it clearly riffs off our online age of handles and avatars, of first-person shooters and POV porn, of vicarious experiences and constructed identities.

As Tasya invasively, offensively inhabits other bodies and other lives – possessing Gabrielle Graham’s club hostess to kill a lawyer, trying out Colin’s sexuality with his unwitting fiancée, and committing repeated acts of vicious bloody murder – we are invited not just to locate our own vicarious thrills in all her deeply transgressive acts, but also to ask what, in adopting and exploiting these identities, Tasya, and we with her, might be losing.

Tasya is meant to complete her jobs by having her hosts commit suicide – but a last vestige of empathy prevents her seeing this through, as if she realises that in doing so she would also be killing a crucial part of herself. In reflecting upon its own dehumanising effect, this wincingly visceral mind-melt of a movie is also very clever.

Other things to explore