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Possessor review – mind-and-body-snatching thrills from Brandon Cronenberg

Mark Kermode, Observer film critic
·3-min read

Anyone feeling nostalgic for the 70s/80s heyday of squishy, sociopolitical body-horror will find plenty to feast on in this uproariously gory yet satisfyingly cerebral second feature from Canadian writer-director Brandon Cronenberg. Set in an alternate version of the early 21st century, it’s a tale of cyber-surveillance and physical transference that taps into timely fears while also addressing age-old issues of identity, alienation and being an impostor in your own life.

Andrea Riseborough brings a chilly anxiety to the role of Tasya Vos, an assassin for a sinister industrial espionage company that transplants the consciousness of its agents into unwitting hosts to carry out covert hits, like a much nastier version of Inception. It’s a job laced with danger, not least because the “possessor” can become damaged or infected by their time as a psychological parasite, losing track of their own identity, a predicament perfectly captured by Riseborough’s minutely attuned performance.

For her latest assignment, Vos “possesses” the body of Colin Tate, boyfriend of Ava Parse (Tuppence Middleton), whose father, John (Sean Bean), is the CEO of an American mega-corp. Having studied her target’s speech, habits and mannerism, Vos inhabits Tate – brilliantly played by Christopher Abbott, effectively doing an impression of Andrea Riseborough doing an impression of Christopher Abbott. Imagine the Carl Reiner comedy All of Me, in which Steve Martin’s body is accidentally filled with the soul of Lily Tomlin, as reimagined by the son of horror maestro David Cronenberg, who has clearly inherited his father’s early enthusiasm for extreme visceral cinema.

Scenes of faces melting and bodies merging have a satisfyingly tactile feel

In his somewhat underrated first feature, Antiviral, Cronenberg posited a world in which celebrity infections could be marketed to adoring fans – a sly satire on a modern malaise with a creepy clinical edge. With Possessor, which he started writing in the wake of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s nightmarish revelations, his focus is on the construction of identity (themes of gender fluidity are buried deep in the narrative DNA) and the invasion of privacy in a time of access-all-areas information.

There’s a down-to-earth sociopolitical subtext to the satirical sci-fi plot, which speaks to an age overrun by companies whose data-mining knows no boundaries. But there’s also a strong emotional thread, exemplified by Vos’s separation from her own family, to whom she has become a danger, and from whom her boss (played with relish by Jennifer Jason Leigh) is determined to keep her apart.

Cronenberg’s decision to shoot the special effects in camera, and to rely on prosthetics and practical effects rather than post-hoc computer graphics, pays huge dividends. Scenes of faces melting and bodies merging have a satisfyingly tactile feel, harking back to the experimental cinematic trickery of Georges Méliès, albeit with added 21st-century oomph. There’s a real physical depth to Possessor that helps keep the story grounded even during its most outlandish flights of fantasy.

Plaudits to cinematographer Karim Hussain, who invests every scene with an air of off-kilter eeriness, and to composer Jim Williams, whose previous credits include Julia Ducournau’s cannibal classic Raw, who conjures an aural landscape that ranges from the brooding to the booming, from intimacy to insanity. Possessor will doubtless prove too gleefully gory for some audiences and too oblique for others, like a half-remembered dream, full of ellipses, open-ended questions and violent eruptions. Like its twisted antiheroine, I’m just eager to go back in.

• Possessor is available on VOD platforms