POSSESSOR review: a deeply unsettling thriller from Brandon Cronenberg

Possessor. Image courtesy NEON
Possessor. Image courtesy NEON /

Brandon Cronenberg’s POSSESSOR is a slick, sophisticated horror-thriller that both deeply unsettles and boggles the mind. 

If 2020 has been an all-around terrible year, at least it’s been a stellar one for horror. We’ll be honest – when it comes to horror films, we often find ourselves hoping for this newfound sense of flair and style that films like Get OutThe Platform, and Hereditary have brought to the genre. A sure sense of self, a willingness to shed the traditional conventions and formulas of the genre, and (of course) some particularly inventive kills.

Perhaps more than any other horror film this year (and boy have there been quite a few) Brandon Cronenberg’s POSSESSOR nails all three, delivering a visceral, sickening blend of science-fiction, horror, and thriller that’s as gripping as it is terrifying.

Starring Andrea Riseborough, POSSESSOR follows the work and personal life of Tasya Vos (Riseborough), an assassin/hitman who works for an agency that is able to transfer consciousnesses from one person to another. Using some advanced technology that we won’t even try to think about the logistics of, Tasya is able to ‘possess’ specially selected victims in order to carry out high-value hits for well-paying customers.

The process of possession, however, takes a toll – Tasya finds herself unable to distinguish her reality from that of the person she’s possessing. After she accepts an ill-faded assignment despite the fact that she’s clearly too volatile to go back in the field, she begins to suffer a breakdown as lines between her mind and the mind of her victims begin to blur.

It’s an ambitious concept, certainly, and one that’s executed with remarkable elegance and simplicity. POSSESSOR doesn’t waste precious time attempting to explain the nitty-gritty of how exactly the possession machine works, instead opting to dive straight into Tasya’s unraveling psyche. From the film’s very first moments, it’s clear that the audience is in for a deeply unsettling ride, and this is in major part due to the near-faultless script.

POSSESSOR is an excellently-paced film that rarely lapses, and manages to seamlessly weave character beats into the most gruesome and violent of moments. Although it could get caught up in its own inner workings, the film smartly focuses its narrative of Tasya, grounding the stakes of her missions on her life outside of work. When we meet her, Tasya is a gaunt, shuddering shell of a woman, who has very visibly been impacted by the physical and mental horrors she undertakes every day when one makes a living in murder.

We first meet her when she’s already taken possession of a young woman (Gabrielle Graham), and watch as she repeats certain phrases and mannerisms back to herself in the mirror – ‘getting into character’ – so to speak. However, once’s she’s disconnected from the machine, she does the same thing when getting ready to visit her son and estranged husband – and we understand instantly that this is a woman whose work has irreparably damaged her day-to-day life.

She’s on shaky ground with her own psyche and loved ones already, but things go from bad to worse when she takes on her next target, possessing the body of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), the boyfriend of a young tech heiress, whom Tasya has been assigned to kill, in addition to her father John (Sean Bean). Though initially, Tasya is able to slip into the role fairly well, the machine soon goes on the fritz, and Colin finds himself slipping back into control, resulting in a tense and terrifying battle for control over their shared mind and body.

Though the script on its own is strong, what really sells the conflict between Colin and Tasya are the performances by Riseborough and Abbott. It’s no small feat for both of them to be playing what’s essentially two characters at once – both their own and each others’ – but they pull it off so well it almost looks easy. Everything from their verbal tics to their mannerism makes it so easy for the audience to suspend belief and actually buy that it’s Tasya in Colin’s body, not just Colin acting oddly.

It’s difficult to pinpoint which performance is stronger – they’re both stunning in their own ways. Tasya is undoubtedly the protagonist, and as such we’re inclined to empathize with her more, especially as we watch her struggle to connect with her ex and her son. Riseborough seamlessly strikes the balance between a futuristic murderer and a real, vulnerable woman who we could almost see ourselves in – for a character inhabiting such a far-away world, Tasya’s vulnerabilities feel incredibly close to home.

Colin, on the other hand, is nearly the exact opposite. He’s outwardly very easy to understand and relate to because, initially, he doesn’t carry the psychological burden that Tasya does. However, when he begins to flash in and out of his own reality, that confusion and terror are gripping, and Abbott is mesmerizing to watch as he jumps between Tasya and Colin in control of his body.

What’s amazing about POSSESSOR, though, is that it’s able to cram all of these character moments and deeply nuanced performances while also telling a more broad, overarching science-fiction/horror story about a futuristic hit that goes wrong. We caught the film’s uncut version, and you get exactly what you pay for – from the first few minutes, POSSESSOR is utterly, brutally violent. It’s some of the most visceral and disturbing body horror that we’ve seen in recent memory, made all the more memorable when contrasted by the sleek, minimalistic aesthetic of the film, as opposed to the typical grime and dinge of the genre.

The film’s entire third act is one psychological, violent trip where Tasya and Colin grapple for control – firing on all cylinders between Abbott and Riseborough’s performances, Cronenberg’s direction and writing, an eerie, atmospheric score by Jim Williams, and capped off via Karim Hussain’s unflinching cinematography. Though it certainly isn’t a film for the faint of heart (or the weak of stomach), POSSESSOR is a sharp, unflinching, and utterly original genre-bending horror film that’s guaranteed to stay with you long after you’ve finished watching.

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