Family dinners must be fun in the Cronenberg house. Now home to two of cinema’s great body-horror visionaries, dad David (director of gnarly classics like Scanners, Videodrome and The Fly) has recently passed the carving knife to son Brandon, who entered the family business in style with 2012’s smart and subversive sci-fi, Antiviral. Now back with the nastiest movie of the London Film Festival, Brandon’s latest looks set to join the same ranks as his dad’s best films – a brutal slice of Orwellian horror that’s brimming with blood and big ideas.
The first shot is a close-up of someone slowly, graphically, pushing a stereo jack plug into their head. If you don’t like the sight of weeping bone marrow, Possessor might not be the film for you – as things get far worse from here on out. The head belongs to a girl who walks into a swanky party and brutally stabs a man to death, but the consciousness inside the head is actually being controlled remotely by Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough, from Oblivion, Birdman and Mandy). Vos has hijacked some helpless girl’s body via a brain implant that lets her move her around like a meat puppet – just another job for a corporation that specialises in discreet, untraceable assassinations.
Yanked out of her host when the police gun down her helpless avatar, Voss wakes up on a hospital bed and starts trying to realign her own mind. Hopping into other people’s brains obviously takes its toll, and Voss has enough of her own (real) problems to worry about. Called back for the next big assignment before she’s ready, Voss hijacks the head of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott, best known as Charlie from Girls) so she can try and murder his corrupt CEO father-in-law (Sean Bean), but her own messed-up reality starts glitching the matrix, causing both consciousnesses to start blurring.
Part art-house Avatar, part body-horror Inception, Possessor pick’n’mixes its influences from everywhere to comment on everything from online identities and weaponised bodies – but it makes sure it soaks every argument in gristle and gruel. Far from gratuitous, the hyper-violence in Possessor is all part of the point (as it is in all the Cronenberg family films), connecting its disconnected characters in the most visceral ways possible.
Far more nightmarish than all the sticky bodily fluids is what’s clean and cold and inhuman about the world of Possessor. Set in a timeless future/past, the film floats through its empty cities like it’s 2020 – a scarily prescient horror about our own recent over-reliance on digital relationships and constantly buffering identities (after the plague fears of 2012’s Antiviral, it’s almost like Cronenberg knows a bit too much…)
Too full of big ideas to ever make much of a point with any of them, Possessor suffers slightly from over-thinking things. It looks fantastic (the ‘transition’ effects especially, borrowed in part from Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin, look beautifully disturbing), but it’s also an easy film to get lost in – with the main thread sometimes buried under all the slick visuals and existential angst. As a simpler study in broken identities though, Possessor taps plenty of power from Riseborough and Abbott’s brilliant twin turns as Vos and Tate. Both at the top of their game, it’s Riseborough’s performance that really lingers – and her honest, human emotion that grounds the film in enough sanity when all the broken teeth, ripped hair and popped eyeballs start hitting the metaphysical walls. Dad would be proud.
- Director: Brandon Cronenberg
- Starring: Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Sean Bean
- Release date: October 16 (London Film Festival), November 27 (in cinemas)