“The assumption that I was going to get into film by people I didn’t know kind of put me off.”
– Brandon Cronenberg
One of the most anticipated films of this year’s instalment of London Film Festival, Possessor is Brandon Cronenberg’s second feature. The film is a tribute to the body horror genre which his father, the legendary David Cronenberg, pioneered but it is also Brandon’s own modern interpretation of this particular brand of fear. Possessor employs a lot of interesting concepts and the visual narrative is sublime but it still feels like the slightly flawed work of a filmmaker who is trying to find his voice.
Set in a technologically advanced future where humans can take control of other individuals by implanting devices into their skulls, Possessor takes a harrowing look at a dystopian future that is completely within the realm of belief. The opening scene itself introduces us to the central theme of the film: visceral violence. We see a woman inserting a needle into her scalp and “calibrating” it with the help of a device, a posthuman vision of the human anatomy: wired and tuned.
Within the first five minutes of the film, we are exposed to a brutal murder by an assassin but the complex narrative makes us realise that the criminal was “remote-controlled” by Tasya Voss (played by Andrea Riseborough), a corporate assassin who is an efficient agent in the business of death. Yes, this is a world where organised crime has become a part of the fabric of capitalism. Their modus operandi is abducting individuals who are close to the target, making them ready for a take-over by implanting chips into their brain and then letting the assassin possess the body. We are familiar with the concept of a “victimless crime” but technology has even managed to take the criminal out of the crime. The job ends when the assassin commits suicide, killing the host and escaping through the neural connection.
In a battle of corporations against other corporations, the individual has been reduced to the status of a tool. What does human identity mean when these identities are used as resources to kill? This is Cronenberg’s searing question and he asks it in a stunning manner. Initially, we are confused because we cannot differentiate between virtual simulation and reality. Even though science has figured out a way to connect two individuals at the fundamental level, Tasya is always disconnected from her surroundings. She does not know how to be emotionally available for her partner and her son. Only visions of violence stimulate her and make her feel alive.
Possessor explores these exigent questions of individual identity, gender identity and ethics through one of Tasya’s assignments: the assassination of John Parse (Sean Bean), the head of a company which uses people’s webcams to gather data about their lives, from the colour of their curtains to footage of them having sex. Everything is meticulously arranged for Tasya as she takes control of Colin Tate (played by Christopher Abbott) from, a drug dealer who works at John’s company and is dating John’s daughter Ava (Tuppence Middleton). While she is in Colin’s body, she is forced to revaluate what gender actually means as she sexually engages with Ava. Cronenberg deconstructs these gender binaries by replacing them with the more problematic binary of physical reality and virtual reality.
The most striking feature of the film is its stunning visual narrative. Cronenberg paints his scary world with primary colours, frequently using red to signify violence and psychological conflicts. He destabilises the narrative structure with interspersed sequences which show that Tasya and Colin cannot co-exist in Colin’s body. Despite all the sci-fi elements, we encounter the same questions that Hiroshi Teshigahara asked in his 1966 film The Face of Another. Cronenberg just infuses these age-old philosophical dilemmas of identity with contemporary concerns in order to make the entire film feel like an episode of the hit series Black Mirror. Some of the more memorable scenes from Possessor are the visceral ones: eyeballs being gouged out and blood everywhere.
Tasya always finds it difficult to end the mission by committing suicide. It goes against her predatory instincts and during this particular assignment, she finds Colin resisting her occupation of his body. He tracks her family down and butchers her husband but Tasya does not blink an eye. She encourages him to do it and the audience is left wondering which identity is real and which is a subconscious projection. The corporation ultimately uses her own son as a host to terminate Colin’s body and end the mission, killing Tasya’s son in the process. There is no place for family in a society that is only guided by the principle of self-preservation.