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BFI London Film Festival 2020 Review - POSSESSOR

possessor review
A young man's body is remotely taken over by an assassin.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Brandon Cronenberg

Starring: Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Rossif Sutherland, Tuppence Middleton, Sean Bean, Jennifer Jason Leigh

possessor poster




You know how witnesses often describe the perpetrators of homicidal acts as behaving as though they were possessed? Well what if some killers really were possessed? Not by any sort of supernatural entity, but by another flesh and blood human tapping into their consciousness like a hacker remotely assuming control of your webcam? That's the central premise of director Brandon Cronenberg's second feature, Possessor.

Cronenberg's film is something of a sci-fi twist on Alan J Pakula's classic conspiracy thriller The Parallax View, in which unwitting dupes are brainwashed into committing assassinations by a shady organisation. Here, the villains have moved far beyond simple mind control and onto something far more advanced - now they have the ability to control a stranger's entire brain and body. This is done remotely, with a special agent hooked up to a series of electronic doohickeys while they control their temporary host from afar.

possessor review

One such agent is Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough). Like a James Bond movie, Possessor opens with the climax of Vos's latest assignment, where she's taken over the body of a young woman working as a hostess at a corporate function. Controlled by Vos, the woman brutally murders a businessman before attempting to take her own life. For some reason, Vos can't get her host to pull the trigger (it's essential that the hosts die so as not to cause any suspicion), but as the young woman is black, the cops who arrive on the scene immediately finish Vos's job for her.


Vos's subsequent mission is more complicated. She must take over the body of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), a slacker currently dating Ava Parse (Tuppence Middleton, who between this and Disappearance at Clifton Hill has now worked with both generations of Cronenbergs), the daughter of wealthy tycoon John Parse (Sean Bean). Under the guise of Tate, the plan is for Vos to kill John while making it look like the result of the well known animosity between the two men.

possessor review

As with his feature debut, Antiviral, Cronenberg's second film shows that the apple didn't fall too far from the Cronenberg family tree. Body-horror is prevalent here, as Cronenberg Jr inherits his father's fascination with the human body and its brittleness. In the US the film has been released under the title 'Possessor Uncut', a marketing ploy designed to emphasise its graphic nature, and this is indeed one of the most explicit films to come out of mainstream North American cinema in quite some time. Along with the over the top gore there's a surprising amount of nudity, both male and female, even offering that most taboo image - the erect penis - at one point (and when Vos first takes command of Tate's body her first instinct is to check out what he's packing!).


Possessor has more to offer than blood, boobs and bollocks however. Cronenberg has fashioned an atmospheric throwback to the conspiracy thrillers of the '70s while preying on very modern fears regarding the surveillance states we now find ourselves living within. Tate's minimum wage job sees him required to spy on hacked webcams and report on the type of furniture he sees in his unwitting victims' homes, information presumably then sold to advertising firms. We're currently living in the future Minority Report predicted - where our buying habits are mined, bought and sold - and Possessor suggests things are set to get even more intrusive.

possessor review

While there's a lot going on subtextually here, Possessor never quite offers us an engaging enough plot to make it really stand out. It's essentially a cyberpunk twist on the old trope of the assassin becoming disillusioned with their career, as Vos begins to have doubts while inhabiting Tate. Riseborough and Abbott are both excellent, but the script doesn't give them quite enough to chew on, and when the former's Vos finds herself doubting her actions, Cronenberg can't find any way to visualise it beyond some clich├ęd blurring effects, save for a late dream sequence involving the creepiest mask since Tommy lee Wallace spray-painted a William Shatner mask to create Michael Myers.

While it exploits very modern fears, ultimately Possessor functions best as a love letter to paranoid cinema of the past. It has a moody, somnambulistic feel that makes it ideal for a late night viewing, and while watching I was brought back to the Sunday nights of my teen years when I would stay up late to watch BBC's Alex Cox hosted 'Moviedrome', which introduced me to many a '70s conspiracy thriller, along with a few movies by Brandon's old man.

Possessor plays on BFI Player on October 16th as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2020.

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