Invoking the name Cronenberg is an immediate, unfailing method to conjure up mental images of grotesque body horror occurring at the intersection of sex, violence and technology. In this respect, Brandon Cronenberg was always going to find it difficult to escape the shade cast by his father’s long shadow. If Possessor is any indication, however, Brandon has no intention of breaking from family tradition. If it can be considered any kind of rebellion at all, it’s that of an heir repurposing the family banner to suit their own aesthetic; the lineage is readily apparent, but, make no mistake, this fortunate son won’t be resting on any laurels.
Great news for many, myself included, but not without its concerns. An apple not fallen far from its tree must possess its own quality; the strength of the trunk that bore it ultimately has little bearing on the taste buds of a passerby eyeing off its fruit. I went into the film with the hope of an experience akin to the satisfying crunch of teeth cleaving through soft, juicy flesh, but guarded with the awareness that many a worm lay in wait beneath unblemished skin. Possessor could easily have fallen afoul of its own pedigree, in danger of being derivative of works that were anything but. Much to my delight, however, Brandon Cronenberg is no bad seed, and the yield in question is not only free of rot, but completely unspoiled.
Make no mistake, it’s simple enough to connect dots between this film and the likes of Videodrome or Existenz, but the younger Cronenberg uses the heritage of his forebear as a launchpad to push into new, darker territory. Set in an alternate 2008, Andrea Riseborough plays an assassin whose contracts are achieved by taking dominion of the body of an unsuspecting third party to perform the execution, leaving behind no trace of the actual assailants or any ulterior motives that lie behind the crime. It’s a simple enough set-up, but ripe with the myriad possibilities of unravelling realities, and this comes to the fore when control over her new host (played by Christopher Abbott) starts to slip.
Possessor’s true horrors are of a metaphysical nature, taking place deep within the mysterious recesses of human consciousness. In the alternative past of the film, at least one secret organisation has found a way to sever whatever connection binds a mind to its body, and replace it with another. It’s the stuff of which many a sci-fi thriller is made, but Possessor departs from convention in not presenting as a mere cautionary tale. There are severe consequences associated with the mental puppetry afoot (of course), but Cronenberg is more concerned with exploring the uncharted territory of the subconscious than the ramifications of man’s reach exceeding his grasp. In fact, there’s a stunning lack of morality to be found, no matter where you look. If horror films afford us the opportunity to reflect on human nature at arm’s length, with a bucket of popcorn in hand, Cronenberg’s distorted mirror reminds us that there is nothing more horrifying than that which resides in our own minds.
It wouldn’t be a Cronenberg film, however, if the concept didn’t manifest itself in a full-blown display of body horror, and Possessor doesn’t disappoint here. The violations of human consciousness culminate in shattering, splattering acts of ferocious violence combined with incessant phantasmagorical hallucinations, which were, stunningly, realised in-camera by the effects team and cinematographer. It’s a visceral affair that is breathtaking in its ruthlessness and remarkable in the inventiveness of its practical execution. Depicting a catastrophic rupture in the mind is a difficult thing to pull off successfully, but Cronenberg revels in the challenge, communicating his warped vision with an extraordinary amount of clarity.
Added to all of this is the underlying meta-narrative regarding the impossibility of identity—specifically the contradictions of its simultaneous constancy and fluidity. The film’s own existence serves as a figurative illustration of its subtext, serving up body horror that is acutely psychological in nature; it is indebted to, and breaking through, the legacy of a figure to which the director is inextricably linked. Possessor doesn’t seek to reconcile whatever conflict rages inside the minds of each of us, but suggests the existence of said conflict is a defining characteristic of what it means to be human. And that is perhaps the most terrifying thing of all.