Stab a human being in a vital area of the body and what happens? In most movies, after one clean thrust a modicum of blood seeps decorously into an item of clothing and the victim promptly drops dead. But this is a Brandon Cronenberg movie and Brandon is the heir to David Cronenberg, king of the body horrror.
So when someone is stabbed in the neck in the pre-credits sequence to Possessor, the blood-letting is spumungous, nasty, frenzied and inconclusive – this victim isn’t going down without a fight. Even as he dies he’s summoning all his forces to keep the only show he has on the road. That’s what happens.
Remarkably, this is Brandon Cronenberg’s first feature – there have been a handful of shorts – since Antiviral, his 2012 feature debut, a cerebral incursion into dad David’s body-horror territory but with a critique of celebrity culture whose subtext made Antiviral all Brandon’s own.
Possessor is a touch of same/same and borrows not just a bit of dad’s 1999 wild ride eXistenZ, but also one of its stars, Jennifer Jason Leigh, who plays the control sending assassin Tasya (Andrea Riseborough) on missions into other people bodies, using “them” to perform some murderous deed before Tasya is ported back into her own world, where her body has been waiting Matrix-style, plugged into life support while her mind was gambolling murderously.
eXistenZ, quick recap, is about Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh lost inside a computer game. Possessor sends Riseborough Tasya off on “one last job” – to assassinate a tech squillionaire (Sean Bean), and his heir-presumptive daughter (Tuppence Middleton), in the guise of her wrong-side-of-the-tracks boyfriend (Christopher Abbott), leaving him to take the rap so the client, a mysterious stepson, can instead inherit.
In Tasya goes, at which point Andrea Riseborough more or less exits the movie (boo) and the acting torch is handed to Abbott, who struggles to match Riseborough for sheer magnetic oomph – but then who doesn’t?
In “one last job” movies, the assassin rarely has an easy time of it, and so it proves here – Tasya gets stuck inside her host’s body and he starts fighting back to establish who has the upper hand.
There’s no point going into the rest of the plot except to say that there is an awful lot more blood, gore and splatter before the end credits. People do not die easily in Possessor. Eyes are levered from sockets, teeth are bent out of reluctant jaws. Tons of fun.
It’s a little like Christopher Nolan’s Inception without the budget and relies an awful lot more on imagination rather than tech wows for its effects.
Cronenberg Jr wrote and directs and has the right stuff in spades, particularly the ideas, and an eye for a striking image, which is two pluses more than a lot of directors have.
Even so I couldn’t help feeling that for all its moments of mad excess and cool procedure, BC never quite found a register to fuly meld the “job” movie with the fugitive thriller.
On top of that there’s a lunge at profundity with a discussion about human identity and culpability – who is the author of the act if the person is possessed (or ill, for that matter)? – which is not only a step towards Christopher Nolan too far but also a resurrection of a trope that’s been done to death, revived and done to death again.
I see no upcoming details for BC on the IMDB and hoping it’s not going to be another eight years before his next film. Niggles apart, there’s an awful lot to like, admire even, in Possessor, particularly if severed body parts (still twitching) are your thing.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020