David Cronenberg hasn’t made a movie since 2014’s Maps to the Stars, but his son Brandon has taken up his legacy of calculated, disturbing body horror in the intervening years. Brandon Cronenberg’s new film Possessor feels very much like the kind of movie his dad would have made, while also forging its own distinct path. It marks the younger Cronenberg as a major visual stylist, even if its plot turns out to be slightly less daring than it first appears. Within the framework of a relatively familiar story about an assassin who gets too close to her target, though, Cronenberg delivers visceral horror and a bleak meditation on the nature of identity.
The movie opens with a seemingly mild-mannered hotel employee suddenly and expertly stabbing a man to death at a fancy reception, then pointing a pistol at the cops who come to arrest her, ensuring that they’ll shoot her dead. That’s because she’s actually possessed by corporate assassin Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), who works for a company that carries out murders for hire by enabling its employees to inhabit the bodies of people close to their targets, and thus pinning the murders on those hapless innocents. This process takes its toll on Tasya’s mind, and she expresses a desire to take some time off to reconnect with her estranged husband and her young son.
But her genially ruthless boss Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) wants Tasya back in the field as soon as possible, and so she agrees to take a job targeting tech CEO John Parse (Sean Bean) and his daughter Ava (Tuppence Middleton), via Ava’s potentially volatile boyfriend Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott). The gruesome procedure that allows Tasya to inhabit Colin’s body is unstable, and that adds to Tasya’s personal instability, which she hides poorly as she attempts to live Colin’s life in the days leading up to the opportunity to kill John at a party.
Tasya has been taking a little too much pleasure in her kills, becoming further distanced from empathy and compassion, and that tendency collides with Colin’s personality inconveniently reasserting itself. The two personas engage in a mental battle that Cronenberg depicts via abstract, haunting imagery, which is far more fascinating than the vaguely defined corporate espionage plot that motivates the assassination in the first place.
There are numerous echoes of David Cronenberg films here, from Scanners to Videodrome to Existenz, which also featured Leigh as the head of a questionable company dealing in identity manipulation. Girder’s agency isn’t the only corporation with futuristic tech here: John runs a company that mines data by spying on people through their webcams, and Colin’s job involves literally peeping into the most private moments of everyday people’s lives in order to catalog the items they have in their homes.
The movie’s commentary about the dangers of intrusive technology is a bit underdeveloped, but the internal conflict between Tasya and Colin is much more engrossing, with Riseborough and Abbott both giving immersive, multilayered performances as people juggling multiple identities. Abbott pulls off an especially difficult feat, playing Colin, Tasya inside Colin, and Tasya and Colin battling in a single body, while effectively differentiating among those various incarnations. Leigh is also excellent as the obviously sinister boss who appears sympathetic and understanding until she doesn’t get what she wants. Her subtle manipulation of the fragile Tasya pays off in a chilling final scene.
The narrative is more sci-fi than horror, and once Cronenberg lays out the basics, there aren’t really any shocking twists. But the violence is so intense and graphic, and Cronenberg depicts it in such vivid detail, that it turns the story into something horrific, reminding the audience of the consequences of Tasya’s brutal actions. The elder Cronenberg might have delved a little deeper and found a more esoteric approach to the story, but this movie is still a worthy continuation of the family legacy, and a promise of plenty more horrors to come from the Cronenberg dynasty.