Flesh fare fantasy
One of the downsides to watching everything at home now is that no matter how nifty your Surround sound setup may be, there’s still no way for it to replicate the aural assault that accompanied theatrical screenings of Brandon Cronenberg’s POSSESSOR. The first time I’ve stayed awake all the way through a midnight movie at Sundance since “Only Lovers Left Alive” back in 2014, this relentlessly gnarly futuristic thriller from the son of legendary director David Cronenberg comes with a pulverizing soundscape of echoes and screams that rattle your brainpan. Slicker and less cerebral than his father’s work, the film nonetheless contains familiar fixations on the loss of identity when technology merges with the new flesh, as well as an ick factor through the roof. In other words, the kid’s a chip off the old block.
A pallid, almost translucent Andrea Riseborough stars as an assassin-for-hire who works remotely–i.e., her consciousness is forcibly implanted into the brains of kidnapped civilians whose bodies she then manipulates like puppets into committing extremely public murder-suicides, wrapping up any potential investigations right there at the crime scene. But she’s been doing this for too long, and her personality is starting to slip, with her memories becoming scrambled. She has to rehearse conversations beforehand when she goes to visit her estranged husband and child.
Her boss (Jennifer Jason Leigh) can see something’s not right. Still, they’ve got a doozy of a client coming up, and if her star killer can just hold it together for long enough to force a black-sheep fiancé (Christopher Abbott) to take out his billionaire future-in-laws, then they can all get out of the field for good. But we know how these “one last jobs” always tend to work out. The technology–a creepy, analog array of dials, needles and knobs–goes on-the-blink and this time, their patsy can sense there’s someone else in there, rattling around inside his skull. What follows is a hard-R interpolation of the 1984 Carl Reiner comedy “All Of Me,” in which Lily Tomlin’s ghost took over half of Steve Martin’s body, only with a lot more people getting shot in the face in this one.
Jesus Christ, is this movie violent. There’s a grubby, lo-fi nastiness to the gore that works you over. The entire aura of the film is foreboding and mean, maybe a bit to its detriment. There’s not a lot of humanity to hang onto here as Cronenberg puts the characters through their preordained paces. I’m not saying I wanted a kinder, gentler “Possessor,” but had we gotten to know these people a little better maybe more would feel at stake beyond the splattery, visceral shocks. There’s a horrifyingly cruel twist at the end that I’d honestly forgotten all about before watching the film again this week for review. Nothing sticks with you beyond the atmosphere and style.
But what atmosphere and style! First of all, kudos to Cronenberg for learning from “Annihilation” that whenever you’ve got a big dump of sci-fi gobbledygook exposition to dispense with, just give it to Jennifer Jason Leigh, who with her alien vocal tics and bizarro breathing will make it sound like the most sinister shit you’ve ever heard. The production design does an incredible job of making contemporary Toronto look like a British science-fiction film from the 1970s. (Even the office chairs are kind of scary.) The unnervingly tactile world of “Possessor” has been realized so vividly, I’m almost frightened to contemplate what Cronenberg will be capable of when he starts paying the same attention to his characters.•••
Over the past two decades, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.