Tuesday, 2 February 2021

POSSESSOR review

Using high tech brain implants that place skilled operatives inside the mind of an unwitting host, a secret agency assassinates high profile targets with no way it can be traced back to them or their clients. Once the job is completed the extraction method is simple; a self-inflicted bullet to the brain to bring the mind of the agent back to their own body. As the process continues to take a toll on the mental well-being of agent Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) she assures her superiors she's ready for her next mission inhabiting the mind of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), but quickly loses her foothold on his body as Colin's consciousness starts to fight against her intrusion.


Arriving a whole eight years after his debut feature, Antiviral, Possessor marks a turning point in the career of writer/director Brandon Cronenberg, both artistically and critically. Although Antiviral was well-received by those that saw it, it's fair to say that it didn't reach a huge audience outside genre fans drawn in by the intrigue that his family name brings. It was unavoidable that Cronenberg the younger was always going to have to work hard to spring out from behind the shadow of his father, David, particularly when working within the body horror genre that marked arguably the high point of his father's filmography with films like Scanners, Videodrome and The Fly. But it's also worth noting that those successes occurred twenty years into his career, having spent years directing for television before 1975's Shivers gave him a clear calling card. For Brandon, who has spent the years between features working on short film projects, there's clearly some shared DNA with his father in his approach to horror (and more specifically body horror) but Possessor has quite rightly been heralded as the arrival of a true visionary filmmaker.

Possessor arrives on digital and blu-ray with great word of mouth and some notoriety, thanks in part to its more extreme elements of gore and special effects. The opening scene sees a young woman enter a crowded bar and proceed to stab a man to death (and then some), who then puts a gun in her mouth but finds herself unable to pull the trigger. Shocking and gruesome, it's a bold, blood soaked introduction to what's to come. As the police guns the young woman down, the conscience of Vos (Riseborough), the agency's lead assassin, returns to her own body, mission completed but not faultless. Pale and with bleached blonde hair, Riseborough's Vos looks like a ghost or inverse shadow, maybe of her former self, maybe of someone else. As she debriefs to her superior, Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and tries to re-stabilise her mind to her own reality by describing her connection to various personal items, it becomes clear that due to the lasting after effects of her work, her family life has become strained to breaking point. Returning home to see her son, she has to rehearse what she is going to say to him in order to pass as a normal person, and not the hollow shell she sees herself as.


Assuring her superiors that she's ready, Vos takes on a new mission to assassinate wealthy businessman John Parse (Sean Bean), by inhabiting the body of his daughter's boyfriend, Colin Tate (Abbott), with only a few days to finish the job before the effects could cause lasting damage to Vos's psyche. But as Tate's host starts to fight back against the invading presence of Vos's conscience in his mind and their physical and mental worlds start to intertwine, the fight for control spills out into the real world.

If you're confused, don't worry. Possessor is certainly a film that's full to the brim with outlandish sci-fi concepts, like the dream world of Inception going on in the mind of someone who's just gone through the door behind the filing cabinet in Being John Malkovich (or maybe the other way around?), but it's a thoroughly entertaining experience. For sure, there's moments around the mid point of the film where Christopher Abbott is on screen and it might be difficult to track whether we're looking at Tate or Vos acting as Tate, but that's kind of the point. What's for certain is that as the story progresses and the film reaches its bravura psycho-sexual set-piece that gives it its most indelible image (and its poster and cover image), you'll just be happy to be along for the ride with them, no matter who may be in control.


Indelible it may be, but it's also not the only incredible piece of effects work, courtesy of British special effects master Dan Martin. A frequent collaborator or Ben Wheatley and with other notable recent credits including Richard Stanley's Colour Out of Space and Jonas Akerlund's Lords of Chaos, anyone who's seen the effects work there will be able to attest to their quality and also visceral impact. There's some truly nasty make-up effects in Possessor as Vos gets to work, and it's stomach churning in it's detail as teeth, eyeballs and fingers all find themselves on the wrong side of Vos/Tate. The inclusion of "Uncut" on Possessor's cover may call back to an era of banned films and highly compromised edits and is undoubtedly there as a marketing ploy for gorehounds, but it is a reassurance that the inclusion of these moments has been deemed necessary and not exploitative by the ratings board. And it's not all blood and guts. There's also an incredible effect that marks the start of the mission, visualising the physical melting away of Vos, only to reform as Tate that can only be described as beautiful.

It's a vividly directed film by Cronenberg, utilising bold reds to differentiate between Tate and Vos's POV and contrasting yellow flares, coupled with a blurring lens and quick cuts as things become more detached from reality between the two leads. Abbott and Riseborough are both fully committed to their roles/role, and as the story falls into what can only be described as an extended psychotic episode for the two of them. A success of their performances within what are increasingly blurred lines is that you want to heap praise on both of them, even when only one of them is on screen. There are some ideas that aren't developed or explored to their full potential, leaving some threads hanging. For example, Colin Tate's job sees him spying through people's webcams in order to document their lives and material belongings in as mundane a detail as choice of curtains. It's an intrusion that nicely mirrors Vos's own whilst also providing commentary on our own real world fears of privacy and personal data collection by multi-national conglomerates, but it's put to one side in order to focus on Vos's primary mission.

A mystery/sci-fi/horror that offers plenty of mind melting ideas that will stay with you long after, beyond the comparisons to its sci-fi, horror forebearers and the work of Brandon Cronenberg's father, Possessor is uncompromisingly it's own thing. Gloriously violent, shocking, visceral, tragic - it has to be seen by your own two eyes to truly be believed.

Verdict

4/5

Possessor is on digital HD 1 February and Blu-ray & DVD 8 February from Signature Entertainment



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