UK/Canada (2020) Dir. Brandon Cronenberg

Body swap films are usually comedies playing up to the dichotomy of opposing genders, differing age groups, or clashing personalities. Put in the hands of a horror filmmaker and you know this concept is going be applied to something darker and psychologically challenging.

Club hostess Holly (Gabrielle Graham) welcomes a client but instead of embracing him, she stabs him repeatedly in the throat until he is dead. Yet Holly didn’t commit this murder – she was possessed by assassin Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), working for a secret organisation that uses brain implants to allow Tasya to possess other people.

Despite Tasya needing a break, her boss Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), lines up two new targets, corporate businessman John Parse (Sean Bean) and his daughter Ava (Tuppence Middleton). Tasya possesses Ava’s fiancé Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), and completes her mission but Tate somehow gains control over Tasya’s weakened mind, stopping her from returning to her own body.

“Like father, like son” has never been a truer aphorism than in the instance of horror legend David Cronenberg and his son Brandon, following faithfully in his father’s footsteps. Possessor is Brandon’s second film and dedicated fans of his father will no doubt recognise touches and influences of his work in the fabric of this outing, yet it is fair to say Brandon has updated the Cronenberg style for the 21st century.

As inevitable as this hereditary approach may be, the story echoes influences further afield, such as the classic anime Ghost In The Shell and the more recent mind-bender Inception. Stomach-churning body horror is still on the menu however – all achieved through practical effects and not CGI – for the gore hounds, which may make up for the convoluted twists in the story.

Tasya is for all intents and purposes is a normal woman in a very abnormal job – she has a husband Michael (Rossif Sutherland) and a young son Ira (Gage Graham-Arbuthnot), although her job, which they don’t know about, means she is away from home so much she lives apart from them. However, the effects of living inside other people’s brains has affected Tasya so much, she has to practice greeting her son before seeing him, as if she has forgotten who she really is.

Information regarding the organisation Tasya works for is kept from the viewer, giving off vibes of being very shady and above the law, but somehow on the radar of the social elite who can afford their services. The limited exposition implies mainly those with some form of corporate gripe are typical clients, or in the case of the Parse family, the jealous son who wants his corrupt father and spoilt sister out of the way.

With no obvious period delineated, the use of advanced technology suggests a possible near future, but not too distant since the human/AI interaction staple is absent. Prior to Tasya taking this job on, Girder subjects her to a memory test to ensure Tasya has returned unscathed with her memories and mental faculties intact. There are a couple of slip-ups, and later Tasya experiences flickers of details from her last hit.

Once Parse has been killed – in the most gruesome manner possible, of course – Tasya must exit by making Tate shoot himself, but Tate’s strong will prevents this. He already had weird flashes of memories that aren’t his own and now suspects something is up and fights back. With Tasya needing to return to her own body, it is the most unique case of kill or be killed, taking place within the brain of one person.

Very few concepts are likely to be as divisive as psychological struggles between reality and fiction, due to how far into the nightmarish distortions the writer is prepared to go. Cronenberg Jr. goes full on head-trip with the reality blurring, the conceit being in the visual representation of it. Tasya and Tate often share the same scene, even the same space together, held together by deftly snappy editing to make the confusion even more harrowing.

For example, a fellow agent posing as Tate’s friend is sent to help free Tasya, and during the test we see both Tate’s vision and Tasya’s run alternately, the latter being the more disturbing of the two. Symbolising Tate’s need to reclaim his brain, the climax of this surreal scene sees Tate rip off Tasya’s face and wear it as a mask – this is definitely a Cronenberg film all right!

Most of these scenes are quite befuddling, naturally given the context, which makes the gory violence feel blunt and almost a relief from being easier to appreciate. Starting as it means to go on, the first uncomfortable sight appears less than thirty seconds in and by the end of the film, we see much worse. Through being handled via prosthetics, gallons of blood, and camera tricks, this tangibility makes for quite a visceral experience.

Everything in between is carried by the cast, and admittedly this means some quite dull stretches, with Christopher Abbott’s febrile portrayal of Tate’s possessed character as it clashes with his own mind carrying the load for the most part. It’s not easy to relay two persona wrestling for dominance, but he pulls it off rather well.

Rising to the occasion as ever with another challenging and submissive performance is Andrea Riseborough, one of the UK’s most versatile and bold actresses. Always giving herself to extraordinary characters like Tasya despite her mainstream appeal, she is a stark yet compelling presence here.

However much Possessor is personal triumph for Brandon Cronenberg, the real test is whether film fans will accept him as his own filmmaker or someone living off a legendary name. If Brandon wanted to be his own man, he wouldn’t have chosen horror so it is resolutely in his DNA. It may take a few more films to step out of his father’s shadow but this is good start whilst keeping the Cronenberg name alive.

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