With his penchant for the same brand of body horror as his father’s early work, it remains a near impossible task to review Brandon Cronenberg’s films without succumbing to the cliche of comparing the two directors. But this is a problem that the younger filmmaker will nevertheless continue to face; after all, considering his dad pioneered a form of horror so distinctive his family name is used to describe it (“Cronenbergian”), it’s hard to assess his work strictly on its own terms, especially when it appears to be solely influenced by Cronenberg senior’s more straightforwardly genre inflected films.
Possessor, or Possessor Uncut as it has been confusingly retitled for US release, sees the younger director remaining in the shadow of his father, telling a tale of corporate espionage that often feels like a watered down Videodrome relocated to the boardroom. It has many striking surface level pleasures, with Cronenberg sharing his father’s eye for framing repulsive moments of violence that make them near impossible to look away from. But it still feels like the work of a talented director struggling to find a distinctive voice of his own, and is likely to leave many wishing they were watching the real thing, instead of a serviceable imitator.
Andrea Riseborough stars as Tasya Vos, a hit woman who is hired by a shadowy firm to inhabit the bodies of unsuspecting citizens to kill high profile clients, before making their “host” kill themselves, leaving the cause of the crime undetectable. Her history as an assassin is beginning to wear on her, and when she’s hired to kill a media mogul (human spoiler warning Sean Bean), she struggles to maintain a presence in her new host body. This is the mogul’s son in law Colin (Christopher Abbott), who is the first to fight back against the puppet master pulling his strings – with increasingly grave consequences.
Admittedly, it wasn’t just David Cronenberg on my mind during Possessor. I often kept thinking back to one of the criticisms thrown at Christopher Nolan, that despite dabbling with high concepts like time travel and entering dreamscapes, his films often have plots that hinge on inescapably dull subjects, like boardroom deals or high stakes financial decisions. When viewed in this light, Possessor succeeds; the specifics of its corporate espionage plot are nothing more than a McGuffin to get inside an increasingly damaged mind, with no endless barrages of expository info dumps to get to the bottom of why specific clients need to be taken down. There’s an ingenious simplicity to how Cronenberg approaches his high concept that more science fiction filmmakers could learn a thing or two from. No info dumps about the business and its clientele, no long winded explanations as to how the science works – just the bare essentials, and it proves more involving than any extensive attempt at world building possibly could.
One of the reasons the comparisons between father and son are inescapable is because of how Possessor utilises one of the simplest body horror concepts: the idea of losing control of your own body, and having it being controlled by somebody with malicious intent. The slight difference between the approaches the filmmakers have to this subject matter is largely because Cronenberg junior puts more stock in the mental than the physical; there are bloodbaths, as you’d expect from a plot that hinges on murder-suicides, but the bloody physical deterioration of Abbott’s “host” is downplayed. The actor is the film’s standout performer for this very reason, his quiet but all consuming panic when confronted with the carnage he’s being used to unleash becoming a more distressing image than any of the stylishly choreographed hit jobs.
Possessor is a stylish assault on the senses, but can’t escape the inevitable Cronenberg comparisons – not least because, no matter how visceral it can be in the moment, none of the gruesome imagery here lodges itself in the brain quite like the most gruesome moments in the filmography of Cronenberg senior. Brandon Cronenberg is clearly a talented director, but he needs to step out of the family comfort zone to find his distinctive voice.
Neon will release Possessor (Uncut) on October 2.
Alistair is a freelance culture journalist from the North of England. He contributes frequently to Film Inquiry and The Digital Fix, and has also written for the BFI, Digital Spy, Little White Lies, Vague Visages and British GQ. You can catch him making terrible puns and giving terrible opinions on Twitter @YesItsAlistair.