To review a Brandon Cronenberg film without mentioning his father is a near-impossible task. At least, it probably felt that way in 2012.
When the son of the legendary Canadian director announced himself with ‘Antiviral’, it was surely a gift and a curse. The quality of the filmmaking proved that he belonged, but his decision to explore similar themes (and lean into similar special effects) didn’t help him step out of his father’s shadow. And with every year that passed without a follow-up film, it seemed more like a neat story than the first step toward a long career.
Eight years later, his sophomore feature shakes that shadow by leaning all the way into it. It’s not a coincidence that ‘Possessor’ is a cautionary tale about one person’s mind influencing another person’s actions. If the elder Cronenberg is still the King of Body Horror, the younger is showing us what out-of-body horror looks like.
The cold open establishes the world right away: There’s a covert organization that specializes in assassinations by implanting an agent’s consciousness into the body of a disposable host. It is essentially the perfect crime; once they’ve tracked down a human vessel with a potential motivation for committing a murder and implanted the neural device, there’s nothing to lose. Every host is terminated upon completing the job, and those that fail leave no trail of evidence.
Make no mistake: This is no Ocean’s Eleven. Cronenberg isn’t concerned with whether or not this clandestine group can pull off “the big job.” The story here is about the weight of the work, the mental toll that’s taken by a career in casual homicide.
This is why Cronenberg smartly emphasizes the texture and tone as much as the narrative itself. Just as the antihero protagonist—played expertly by Andrea Riseborough—inhabits other minds for a moment, viewers are given a glimpse into hers by way of psychedelic visuals and sonic soundscapes.
While the film’s third act struggles to stick the landing, ‘Possessor’ is nonetheless the sort of expertly crafted sci-fi thriller one might expect from this brand name. But perhaps the best calling card for Cronenberg as a filmmaker to watch for is how well he handles his cast. (In fact, the film itself could be seen as an allegory for a director’s relationship with their actors.)
Riseborough and Jennifer Jason Leigh play the catalyst and commander of the organization, exchanging bits of excellent dialogue in the quiet moments. Sean Bean supports as an ego-driven tech mogul, chewing the scenery without taking too many big bites. But the highlight here is Christopher Abbott, who pulls off the difficult trick of playing two different characters inhabiting one body—sometimes oscillating between the two in the same scene, adding just the right amount of ambiguity to keep things interesting.
And for the horror fans wondering if this is pure sci-fi, don’t worry—there’s gore galore. Buckets of blood, extreme violence, closeups on breaking body parts, and even one moment in particular that might make you gasp. (You’ll know it when it happens.)
For a few years, Cronenberg’s absence felt like a missed opportunity for a fresh yet familiar voice in genre filmmaking. After his triumphant sophomore return, hopefully he’s here to stay.
‘Possessor’ hits select theaters and drive-ins starting Friday, October 2.
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