Dir: Brandon Cronenberg. Starring: Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Sean Bean, Tuppence Middleton, Jennifer Jason Leigh. 18 cert, 103 mins.
Possessor isn’t a David Cronenberg movie. But it’s not not a David Cronenberg movie, either. Rife with the Videodrome director’s trademark body horror and shot-in-Toronto chilliness, it's in fact directed by Cronenberg’s son, Brandon. It produces an uncanny effect, which only exaggerates its faults. This remains an entertaining techno thriller, however, led by actors whose mere presence does the leg work whenever Cronenberg’s script falters.
Andrea Riseborough is Tasya Vos, an operative for a company that specialises in corporate assassinations. A mystery process has allowed employees to quite literally inhabit the skin of other people, with Tasya recruited to kill one of Toronto’s most powerful men (Bean) while in the body of his son-in-law, Colin (Abbott). The rules are simple: once the hit has been committed, Tasya’s “essence” will depart Colin’s body, leaving the actual Colin framed for the crime. That’s the plan, anyway.
Cronenberg broke out in 2012 with his directorial debut Antiviral, a darkly humorous horror in which bacterial illnesses that once afflicted celebrities are packaged and sold to their biggest fans. It’s a brilliant idea, just absurd enough to be creepily believable, and arguably better than the film it was housed in. Possessor is similarly overflowing with cool ideas, yet seems just as uncertain about what to do with them.
Tasya is a compelling question mark, someone who has spent so long in other people’s bodies that she has grown withdrawn from her son and husband, from whom she has separated. There’s also a kinky charge to the film’s gestures towards trans identity, with Tasya and Colin battling for sexual control of their shared body at one point, which manifests in a soup of breasts, erections and violent thrusting. Cronenberg doesn’t do much with it all, though, leaving Possessor and its cast somewhat flailing in the midst of compelling ideas.
At least Riseborough and Abbott, while rarely on screen together, both nail a similarly exhausted detachment from the world, as if they haven’t slept in weeks. Jennifer Jason Leigh, 20 years after starring in Cronenberg Sr’s eXistenZ, gives good exposition as Tasya’s icy boss. There’s also much to admire about the film’s practical effects – Tasya fusing with Colin is a horrifyingly impressive collage of discarded flesh and heads collapsing in on themselves. Bean, meanwhile, is involved in a scene so tooth-pullingly hideous that it truly needs to be seen to be believed.
You just wish Possessor could have pruned an idea or two. Cronenberg tackles everything from surveillance culture and corruption to race and corporate greed, but struggles to really say anything about any of them. You can understand why Cronenberg Jr wouldn’t want his father in the editing room, but it may have helped somewhat.
Possessor is on digital platforms from 27 November