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LFF 2020 Review: Possessor – “Shocking, thrilling and highly relevant”

Possessor is Brandon Cronenberg’s second film and stars Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Riseborough plays Tasya Vos, an assassin who works for an underground organisation who insert her consciousness into the minds of innocent hosts who carry out assassinations. The host is then killed or commits suicide once the job is complete, leaving no trace of the subterfuge. With each new job, Vos places her own sanity and sense of self at risk as her mind combines with that of the host, taking on their memories and experiences. Once the job is completed and the assassin has been ‘pulled out’, they must complete a series of standard control questions to establish they are still themselves and in control. Vos embarks on a new and important job, the assassination of a tech corporation’s CEO John Parse (Sean Bean). Vos uses Parse’s daughter’s boyfriend, Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott) as her host to gain access to Parse, but when Tate begins to resist and his consciousness fights back for control, things begin to go horrifically wrong.

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Cronenberg continues to play with themes of technology, body horror and the nature of the self. This is familiar ground in the Cronenberg family and in many ways, this could be seen as a perfect companion piece to Videodrome and eXistenZ which were directed by his father, David Cronenberg. A multi-generation Cronenberg Tech-Assassin Trilogy, if you like.

Here Cronenberg pushes the boundaries even further in terms of surrealism, striking visuals and extreme violence. The opening sequence lets us know the level of violence we are to be subjected to almost immediately. A young woman inserts a wire device into her head. Then later while working as a waitress at a party she viciously attacks a man, stabbing him in the throat and body, over and over again. It turns out to be this attacker is a host for Riseborough’s assassin, Vos. Once ‘pulled out’ and back into her own body, she is asked by her handler Girder, played by the ever-brilliant Jennifer Jason Leigh why she did not use the gun she was provided with. We learn that such a frenzied attack was never required and this was a choice on the part of Vos, telling us all we need to know about her.

Karim Hussain, who worked on Cronenberg’s feature-length debut Antiviral, brilliantly captures a world in stark colours and washes. The screen fills with blue, green, red and orange as we jump from cold realities to fever dream-like sequences that flash by at an almost subliminal level, leaving only half realised memories of images, unease and alienation. This is quite a feat, considering most of the effects were physically realised with a minimal amount of CGI work. When you watch Possessor, you are not watching passively, Cronenberg grabs you by your senses and drags you into the middle of his meticulously realised nightmare, whether you wanted him to or not.

The violence is extreme, graphic and very close up. For a film that ponders on the nature of reality, the violence feels very authentic and up close. Every crunch of bone, blade into flesh and frenzied attack is tangible and sickeningly realised. This is not a multiplex crowd-pleaser where violence is played out as ‘action’ in franchise friendly, homogenised and manageable CGI chunks. There are chunks, but not of that kind.

Andrea Riseborough is chilling as the by day borderline psychotic assassin, by night loving wife and mother. It is a performance of great restraint that could so easily have leapt over the top, but her cold stare and stillness convey so much within the twisted and fractured mind of Vos. Christopher Abbott is superb in playing Tate, Vos within Tate and finally Tate and Vos struggling for control of the host. Again, his restraint is key to the success of his performance. It would have been all too easy to resort to continually holding his head in his hands and writhing around until he resembled an early Kate Bush parody. Jennifer Jason Leigh provides a solid performance as Girder, an assassin’s handler for the nameless organisation but her talents seem underused in the role.

With Possessor, Cronenberg has followed up his impressive full-length debut, Antiviral with an even more visually striking film. He continues to explore themes that will be familiar to fans of his father’s work, particularly throughout the 80s and 90s. Thankfully, he is not just rehashing those films but taking those themes, expanding and developing them into highly imaginative and exciting films that are shocking, thrilling and highly relevant for an audience in this era. Possessor has been the most memorable film of LFF 2020. Its concepts, performances and striking visuals will stay with those who can endure the extreme violence and will no doubt heighten with repeated viewings.

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