Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is a professional assassin.
That really shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. For whatever reason, films about assassins have become very popular over the past few years and those assassins are often women. However, what sets Tasya apart from other assassins is the technique that she uses. Under the direction of Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Tasya can possess someone else’s body. While controlling that other person’s body, Tasya commits her murders and then commits suicide. The host dies while Tasya’s mind returns to her original body. The media then reports that the murder was some sort of random incident and, with the killer dead by their own hand, their true motives will probably never be known. It’s an outlandish premise and yet, it’s one that feels oddly plausible. Most mass shootings and random acts of violence remain a mystery precisely because their perpetrators often take their own lives. Three years after the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, we still don’t know why Stephen Paddock opened fire on a music festival in Las Vegas. We’ve become conditioned, I think, to accept that these things just happen.
Wisely, Possessor doesn’t go into too much details about just how exactly Tasya possesses other people. We see that it involves a lot of odd technology and we also discover that Tasya struggles to return to her “normal” self after her mind returns to her body. That’s really all we need to see. Too many films make the mistake of trying to explain all of the little details, as if the audience is going to be concerned as to whether or not a film about possession is 100% plausible. The director of Possessor, Brandon Cronenberg, understands that all he really has to do is make it look convincing. He doesn’t have to explain it and, indeed, there’s much that Cronenberg doesn’t explain.
Tasya’s latest assignment takes her into the body of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), who is engaged to marry the daughter of arrogant businessman named John Parse (Sean Bean). Colin and Tasya find themselves fighting for control of Colin’s body. Even while Tasya is setting up the circumstances that will lead to Colin killing both his girlfriend and her father, Colin is resisting and struggling to take control. It all leads to some disturbingly surreal imagery, as well as some shockingly gory violence. There’s a lot of blood in Possessor. Both figuratively and literally, Possessor is a film that’s obsessed with what lies under the skin. Throughout the film, bodies and minds are ripped open and what we discover inside of them is frequently grotesque.
Possessor is a film that raises a lot of questions and which often refuses to provide easy answers. Does Girder sincerely care about Tasya or is she just manipulating her emotions to get the result that she desires? Who exactly does Girder work for? Does Tasya truly want to get back together with her estranged husband, Michael (Rossif Sutherland)? Is Michael as clueless as he seems or does he secretly understand that Tasya is lying whenever she says that she has to go away on business? Possessor is not always an easy film to follow but Cronenberg’s visuals are so strong and the performances are so wonderfully off-center that it remains enthralling regardless of whether or not it always makes it sense. By the time one person is wearing someone else’s face as a mask, it’s pretty much impossible to look away.
With its emphasis on body horror and loss of identity (as well as its chilly Canadian setting), Possessor has a lot in common with the early work of David Croneberg. That’s perhaps not surprising, considering that Possessor was directed by David’s son, Brandon Cronenberg. Unfortunately, Possessor doesn’t really have the same dry sense of humor that distinguished David Cronenberg’s best films. (David Cronenberg was, in his way, as much of a satirist as a horror director and Possessor doesn’t quite have the same subversive charge as something like Rabid or Shivers.) That said, Possessor is still a fascinating and enthralling film, one that will stick with you long after it ends.