Thursday 26 November 2020

Possessor (Canada/UK 2019: Dir Brandon Cronenberg)

A black woman, Holly (Gabrielle Graham), enters a bar and kills a man, brutally stabbing him multiple times, after which she says, seemingly to no one, "Pull me out" and turns a gun on herself. Unable to fire it, she is taken down by cops who storm the bar. In an austere medical facility a woman wakes up; she is Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), a 'possessor' employed by a company to interface into other people's minds to carry out assassinations on behalf of rich clients who have paid handsomely for the service. But, as would be expected in such a risky undertaking, it is not without emotional and physical consequences; Vos has to be tested to ensure her own memory has remained intact (involving her naming objects from her past).

But the signs of Tasya's mental unravelling are clear; when she meets up with her husband Michael (Rossif Sutherland) and son Ira (Gage Graham-Arbuthnot), from whom she is separated, we see her rehearsing the words of greeting she'll use when she meets them, like trying on real life for size. Michael, not knowing of Vos's vocation, wants her to rejoin the family, but it already looks like it's too late; she's almost a dead woman walking.

Vos's boss Girder (Jennifer Jason-Leigh) presents her with her next project; the company's biggest yet. She is to 'possess' the mind of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), an ex drug dealer who has hooked up with money; his girlfriend Ava (Tuppence Middleton) is the daughter of John Parse (Sean Bean), CEO of a very powerful data mining company; John has grudgingly given Tate a shop floor level house surveillance job, which is as sleazy as it sounds. The client commissioning the work is John's stepson, Reid (Christopher Jacot), who wants to take over the company. Vos, as Tate, is to kill John, Ava and then himself, allowing Reid to assume control. But there's a bigger plan; the company Vos and Girder work for then want to 'buy' Reid, giving them access to that company's data resources.

Vos accepts the job. The interface is successful, but either Tate has a stronger mind than her other jobs, or Tasya is losing control. So while she moves to complete her mission a battle of wills commences, which could have fatal consequences for everyone involved.

I wasn't too enamoured with Brandon Cronenberg's feature debut, 2012's Antiviral, and on the surface his follow-up revisits the same near future territory of science deployed cynically into a narrative that fuses dream and waking states. But where that movie somewhat aped Brandon pere's similar obsessions, Possessor finds him truly branching out, making a humane and touching film, full of WTF moments and with an impressive visual palette which belies the movie's modest budget.

The film is elevated to greatness by two actors with a reputation for subsuming themselves into their roles, physically and emotionally. As Girder, Tasya's exhausted but ultimately benevolent boss, Jennifer Jason Leigh gives a subtle and care worn performance as a scientist whose whole life has been devoted to perfecting the process of 'possessing', and losing her moral compass along the way. But the real star here is Andrea Riseborough; as the ethereal Vos it's one of the standout performances of the year, her bland face a tabula rasa for other personalities. It's a difficult role to pull off; for much of the film she's in the body of Colin Tate (also a fine performance from Christopher Abbott) but Vos's non-personality - she's a cipher for the bodies she inhabits - and her desperate need to cling to her own identity are powerfully rendered.

The tussle between Vos's identity and those of the bodies she inhabits is apparent from the get go. When Girder asks her, when 'possessing' Holly, why she chose a knife to kill her victim rather than the pistol provided, Tasya responds that she thought the knife would be more in character. "But whose?" Girder responds. And it's at this point that the viewer realises that it's Vos who is the assassin, not those whose bodies she occupies.

Thematically Possessor is a game of two halves; the first plays almost like an entry in the 'Mission: Impossible' franchise, with Vos being given a role to play, a pre-planned endgame (the pick up zone, if you like) and the elaborate scientific preparations for her interfacing. We learn that the longer Vos occupies the body the greater the negative impact on her own body and mind, and after five days of occupation she will be irrevocably trapped. The second half, with the unravelling of the Tate mission, takes us into more abstract territory, and the identity crisis subplot positively reeks of the writings of Phillip K. Dick and, to an extent, the memory politics of the films of Christopher Nolan. There's also a moment in the film, when Ava's friend Reeta (Tiio Horn) comes onto Tate and Vos realises that they've been sleeping together (a fact that wasn't in the mission plan) which reminded me of Jennifer Garner finding out, as a child in a woman's body, that her adult self wasn't very nice in the 2004 age swap comedy 13 Going on 30.

The 'scuffed future' of the movie may be a familiar one - prosaic locations against shiny almost but not quite familiar technology - and the mission concept a sci fi/action movie staple; but Cronenberg is also happy to step outside the norms of this type of movie. At one point for example Vos, as Tate, travels across town to watch Michael and Ira, desperate to re-connect with them, and there's a realisation that although Vos has inserted herself into her host/victim with a mission to fulfil, these stories are playing out in the same city (Toronto) at the same time; it's quite the moment.

Ultra-violent, mind-messy and unflinchingly sad: in Possessor Brandon Cronenberg has made a sci fi movie for the 21st century that he can be truly proud of. See it.

Possessor is released on digital platforms on 27 November from Signature Entertainment.

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