Holly (Gabrielle Graham) is waitressing at a swanky party one evening. Before starting her shift, she privately inserts a large needle into the top of her cranium. The needle is attached to a wire, connecting it to a small box with a dial on it. When the dial is spun, this sends a frequency into Holly's brain. Holly is in tears by this point, but strangely serene moments later as she enters the party.
Calmly taking a knife from a nearby table, Holly walks without haste towards an oversized male guest in a dinner suit and proceeds to stab him multiple times while the rest of the room flees in panic. As Holly hears sirens approaching in the distance, she gently utters the words "pull me out". Moments later the police arrive and gun her down, a final bullet through her face extinguishing her light.
It's at that moment that Tasya (Andrea Riseborough) awakens gasping on a surgical bed as a huge VR-type helmet is lifted from her head. It turns out she is an agent working for a highly mysterious outfit who "possess" people via brain implant technology - thus enabling them to take control of another person's body and perform assassinations under different guises for the benefit of high-paying clients.
The only problem is, Tasya has apparently been doing this for some time when we first meet her ... and the side-effects of her job are beginning to concern her. Her boss and safety regulator Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) picks up on Tasya's worries but assures her that she's passed the post-possession checklist which ensures an agent has crossed back over into reality without any obvious trauma or memory distortion. As Girder puts it, she can't have her "star performer" falling apart - the next job is a big one.
Alarm bells should've started ringing when Tasya asks Girder for a little time off to spend with her partner Michael (Rossif Sutherland), prompting her boss to remind her that the couple are separated. Tasya quickly corrects herself, suggesting they need time to explore the possibility of reconciliation.
Michael and Tasya are indeed separated; later that day, we witness her practicing normal conversation before approaching his front door and knocking to visit their son Ira (Gage Graham-Arbuthnot), of whom Michael has custody. Michael invites her in for dinner, and she gets to recite the lines she'd carefully rehearsed. Over lunch, the TV in the background reports of a lawyer's murder at the hands of a waitress called Holly ...
Tasya stays for a dinner party with a couple of Michael's friends that evening, and afterwards our protagonists end up having sex. Disconcertingly, Tasya has flashbacks to thrusting the blade into the lawyer's neck during intercourse. Still, she stays the night and the following morning rings Girder to announce she's ready to return to work. She also tells Michael the news, claiming "something's come up". He wants her to move back in, and is also desperate for her to put less focus on work and more on rebuilding their struggling relationship. As he speaks to her, though, she hallucinates a vision of blood seeping from an open wound on his neck.
So, despite the obvious warning signs that something's seriously amiss, Tasya goes back to work. After quizzing her about why she chose to stab the lawyer numerous times instead of using the pistol she was provided with, and receiving no satisfactory answer, Girder still offers the next job to Tasya.
To this end, we get a quick back-story explaining the next job: former cocaine dealer Colin (Christopher Abbott) has cleaned himself up and got engaged to rich kid Ava (Tuppence Middleton), the daughter of John (Sean Bean) - CEO of a huge company which she stands to inherit. However, John's stepson Reid (Christopher Jacot) figures that if the agency can "possess" Colin, making it appear over a short time he becomes enraged by his emancipation at the hands of Ava to the point that he kills both her and John ... thus leaving Reid clear as the next in line to a vast fortune.
"The pay is significant" Girder grins, "in money and in shares".
Tasya moves herself into an apartment overlooking Ava and Colin's, and begins spying on them, trying to copy Colin's mannerisms in preparation of becoming him. And then, without warning, Colin is abducted, put under sedation and operated on - ready for Tasya's possession. She's told she has three days to complete her task but if she takes any longer a risk of brain damage applies. Hmm, it may be a little late to be considering that as an occupational hazard?!
And so, Tasya is in. Under the watchful eyes of her colleagues, she has mentally entered Colin's body and life. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, a great deal as it happens. And within hours of Tasya being Colin. She's slipping in and out of both realms, becoming him but also sliding back into her own conscious state at the most inopportune moments (such as when she's having sex, as Colin, with Ava).
Things only spiral ever more out of control from this point onwards ...
Director Brandon Cronenberg, son of David (VIDEODROME, THE FLY etc), burst onto the scene several years back with his feature debut ANTIVIRAL. It was an impressively controlled, original sci-fi thriller boasting a cool, clinical aesthetic style very reminiscent of his father's early works. Now he's back with his second feature, POSSESSOR, and it's been causing major ripples at festival screenings over the last several months.
This is hardly surprising. While it retains that sense of methodical control, offering a very deliberate tempo and stylised aesthetic which admittedly is a lot warmer in hue this time, it's also at times an extremely bloody proposition. The opening assassination of the lawyer, for example, is something of a gore fest - albeit played out and portrayed in a jarringly matter-of-fact fashion. And there's more to come (teeth torn out of mouths, eyes gouged out etc). The sex scenes are graphic in a non-hardcore way, though we do get sight of a prosthetic hard-on protruding from a confused Tasya during intercourse.
Resplendent in colour schemes which recall prime Mario Bava at times, POSSESSOR is a highly attractive proposition. It also moves along at an agreeable pace, more so than its predecessor did. It can feel deceptively slow though, I guess, due to Jim Williams' low-key score (sometimes comparable to Howard Shore's on VIDEODROME, funnily enough) and sombre demeanour of most players; POSSESSOR is a serious film, where flashes of humour are not so much fleeting but non-existent.
There's a telling moment about 50 minutes into proceedings where we realise that the opening shot of Holly inserting the needle into her cranium was actually Tasya recalibrating herself in Holly's already-possessed mind and body, hence her tears - she was already struggling then. And this new job is surely going to destroy her fragile mind even more.
Riseborough, who I found quite unlikeable in MANDY (ironically, as she played the title character), offers more depth here, delivering a complex character who at once is a murderer by trade and a compassionate family woman by nature. She may put her job first, but you get the impression that's only because she can't stand to fail or let people down.
Jennifer Jason Leigh is always reliable and steps up to the plate as per usual here, despite being on the periphery of events for the most part. Abbott makes an impact as Colin through Tasya's confused eyes, reflecting her sadness in a convincing way. Cronenberg Jr has commanded good performances all round, truth be told, which aid POSSESSOR immensely. Even Sean Bean acquits himself quite well - words I never thought I'd type.
Writer-director Brandon is definitely his father's son, falling squarely into the early body horror territory that earns the term "Cronenbergian". And yet he's tailored a film here that intrigues, fascinates, involves and occasionally excites all on its own merit. It's at times surreal, but linear and consequently easy to follow even when some of Tasya's nightmarish visions become a little Manga-ish.
A paranoid thriller based not only on the threat of identity theft but the loss of identity in modern society? Just give it a go and see for yourself. It's worth it.
POSSESSOR is available to stream on Amazon US now, and will follow with blu-ray and 4K UHD physical releases in December 2020 via Well Go USA. Its UK blu-ray counterpart is due for release in February 2021 courtesy of Signature Entertainment.
For the purpose of this review, we were sent an online screener link from Well Go USA's publicity agents NEON.
The film was presented uncut - 104 minutes and 16 seconds in length - and in its original widescreen ratio, with English stereo audio. The picture quality was very healthy indeed, proffering clean and sharp visuals, vivid colours and a highly agreeable amount of HD detail. The audio was similarly impressive.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Well Go USA|