All the way back in 2012, I made a list of five directors to watch, Ti West, Srđan Spasojević, Richard Bates Jr., Panos Cosmatos, and Brandon Cronenberg. Of the five, only West and Bates have made more than a couple of films since then, with West moving mostly into TV directing since his most recent features, the Jim Jones-inspired The Sacrament (2013)and the nicely done Western revenge tale In a Valley of Violence (2016), and Bates cranking out new work approximately every couple of years, including Suburban Gothic, Trash Fire, Tone-Deaf, and the upcoming King Knight (I plan on spending the start of 2021 tracking down Bates’ work, as I adored 2012’s Excision). Spasojević has a new feature, Whereout, in the works that sounds interesting, but I can’t find much about it beyond his IMDB page.

The other two picks from my list have turned out to be, if not the most prolific, the most visionary of the bunch. Maybe of any bunch of up-and-coming filmmakers. Cosmatos released the mind-bending revenge thriller, Mandy in 2018 and it was an eye-opener. Our own Nate Zoebl gave it a B-, but I personally found it to be breathtaking and one of the best films I’ve seen in years. Now, two years later, Brandon Cronenberg finally gives us his follow-up to the extremely disturbing Antiviral, Possessor, and boy was it worth the wait. In fact, I’d venture to say that a double feature of Mandy and Possessor would be a great way to ring in the New Year.

Set in an alternate 2008, Possessor is the tale of an assassin, played by Andrea Riseborough (the titular Mandy, mentioned above), hired by a shady businessman to murder his brother and niece so that he can inherit the company. That’s not all that complex, but here’s where it gets interesting; the organization Tasya Vos (Riseborough) works for has developed technology that allows them to transmit the consciousness of Vos into an innocent person and use that person to do the hit before committing suicide and being yanked back out to her own body, clean and easy. The problem is that Vos has been so successful at killing this way that she’s losing touch with her own identity and also finding it difficult, if not impossible, to kill the host body on her way out. And then, with this latest job, her host, Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), rebels once the murders take place and the back half of the film deals with the struggle between Tate and Vos to maintain control of his/her body.

It’s a feature-length film that explores the moral and ethical implications of subsuming another’s mind and taking over their body to do with as you please. Patty Jenkins should have maybe checked it out before writing Wonder Woman 1984.

Vos isn’t just the best assassin in the company’s stable, she’s also being groomed for management by her superior, Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a former assassin who now runs the show. Her disaffected demeanor is something of a tell for where she wants Vos to get to psychologically. Vos has a family, an estranged husband, Michael (Rossif Sutherland) and a young son, Ira (Gage Graham-Arbuthnot) and that connection is undermining her effectiveness, to Girder’s way of thinking. And she’s not wrong. The ties to her family are one of the greatest strains that she is operating under as she becomes more and more isolated and lost in her role as a killer.

This is demonstrated in two pivotal scenes, the first is her re-orientation after the opening scene’s violently bloody murder, and then as she rehearses being normal before meeting Michael and Ira for dinner. In the re-orientation scene, Vos is asked to identify objects from a box, choosing the ones that are actually hers and explaining their importance. One of the objects is a butterfly pinned in a box that she did as a child. She says that she still feels guilty about it. Later in the film, this is no longer an issue.

The most affecting, though, is that rehearsal moment, standing alone in the street outside her husband’s home, trying over and over to sound like a normal person and not a disassociated killer. It’s central to the idea that she’s losing touch with just who she actually is, with even her civilian life becoming a role that she has to prepare for, practicing her inflections and wordings in exactly the same way she does while preparing to inhabit Colin’s body later. But all the practice in the world isn’t enough to keep her from seeing visions of her violent acts, and this is what drives her back to the job. She is totally restrained as Vos, whether it’s with her family or with Girder.

The only time we really see her expressing passion is in the act of murder.

And whoa boy, does she get into murder.

The violence in Possessor (Uncut) is extreme and over-the-top, but not in a cartoonish way. This isn’t the hilarious extremes of Ash vs Evil Dead or Tokyo Gore Police. This is animalistic and brutal. This is disturbing and visceral. Cronenberg has said, “I find it more unsettling if violence is very sanitized. If you have a PG-13 movie where 100 people get killed and no one bleeds, to me that’s doing a disservice by trivializing the violence. So I prefer people to have that visceral response, because you should.”

He succeeds.

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Andrea Riseborough give strong, understated performances that are both off-kilter and believable as killers who are essentially actors taking on roles who, in the aftermath, seem lacking in emotion, as if assuming the host identities are where they really come to life. Christopher Abbott’s performance as Colin Tate – as Vos inside Tate’s body – is phenomenal and the success of the narrative largely rests on his shoulders, portraying the physical and psychological struggle to control his body.

But the performances are only part of what makes Possessor such an amazing work of art. While sitting in development hell for four years, Cronenberg (son of horror pioneer David Cronenberg), director of photography Karim Hussain, and producer Rob Cotterill, began experimenting with using “colored gels, lighting contrasts, projection vortexes and a vintage 1970 Angenieux 25-250 zoom lens” which would ultimately culminate in the look of Possessor being almost entirely achieved ‘in camera’ and with practical effects.

Even the brief scene in the beginning where water seems to be defying physics and flowing backward or freezing mid pour was done practically “using a subwoofer placed inside a fountain that generated a tone at a frequency of 24 Hz, matching the 24 fps frame rate of the camera.”

Visually, this 2008 is a world where technology went a different way than our reality. All of the tech in this film is lo-fi and beautifully put together with an almost hand-made feel, while at the same time, everyone has wall-sized television screens. Cars are all retro and everyone vapes. Tate works as a data miner, but in this world, that means he and hundreds of others sit at screens, watching us all through our tech and documenting our purchases and activities in a way that manages to almost be more disturbing than the real data mining that goes on every day in reality.

And I didn’t even mention the unnerving ambiance of the soundtrack by Jim Williams. Its hypnotic minimalism is balanced by orchestral accompaniment in a way that never allows the listener to feel comfortable, even when the film ventures into more relatable and understandable moments.

Possessor is a masterfully realized visual treat that manages to unnerve and disturb without any consideration or concern for the audience’s comfort and well-being. This is a film about a character’s decent into potential madness, who comes out the other side changed. For the better? That depends on your point of view, I guess. In his second film, Cronenberg is years beyond where his father was at this stage in his career. Possessor is really that good.

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