There’s something particularly wonderful about a film that challenges you, one which unnerves, unsettles, and burrows in, prompting contemplation past its clear end. This happens with joyful films like Over The Moon (2020), whose infectious songs linger, instilling a desire to relive the fun, which, of course, requires delving into the explorations of love and loss that come along with the ear worm tunes. This happens with intense dramas like Da 5 Bloods (2020), featuring performances from actors Delroy Lindo and Chadwick Boseman which elicit such pain and power that you’ll want to experience them again just to see masters at work. More specifically, this happens with writer/director Brandon Cronenberg’s second film Possessor, a film whose concepts, performances, and special effects are so disarming and disturbing that you’ll want to explore it again and again to better understand the absolutely mastery on display in near every aspect. Previously released in select theaters by Neon, Cronenberg’s Possessor is hitting shelves on December 7th, bringing it with the kinds of extras that turn the science fiction thriller into a lecture that’ll have you amazed from beginning to end.
Set in an alternate 2008, Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) works for a mysterious company as an assassin, infiltrating and executing targets by means of hijacking someone else’s mind via brain-implantation technology. After a particularly taxing job, Vos plans to take some time off, but is pulled back in when her handler, Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), contacts her about a high-risk, high-reward job. Everything is going smoothly and according to plan at first, but then glitches and other oddities arise that slowly build toward a fight for control as her host body recoils against Vos, putting both their lives at risk.
First, if you suffer from any kind of photosensitivity, Possessor may not be the film for you. Cronenberg’s artistic choices to make corporeal the internal struggle of psyches fighting for dominion involves quite a few flashing images, many of which are sudden and untelegraphed. The execution is incredibly immersive, but the frequency may create trouble for sensitive viewers. It wasn’t migraine-inducing like The Rise of Skywalker, if that measure helps.
Second, there are two versions of the film being released: Possessor and Possessor Uncut. The regular edition features a red cover, while Uncut is yellow. The distinction matters not just because Uncut features more graphic nudity and violence, but Uncut is the more realized version of Cronenberg’s concept. Additionally, the review copy provided was the Blu-ray, not the 4K HDR, so this review won’t cover those aspects. However, given the gorgeousness of the film and the focus on practical over digital effects, 4K is likely to bring out the best possible visual home viewing experience and more options with the audio. The Blu-ray comes with DTS-HD 5.1, offering a fine auditory adventure for most standard home set-ups.
For the spoiler-free thoughts on Possessor, check out EoM’s senior contributor Hunter Heilman’s fantastic theatrical review.
The praise heaped up Possessor absolutely deserved. Even as a second feature, the evidence is clear that Cronenberg is a confident, assured creative. There’s meaning in everything from the staging of shots to the colors of costumes to the methods of creating the various effects and prosthetic gags which make up the gnarlier moments of the film. Possessor is every bit as gruesome, grotesque, and provocative as you may have heard and none of it is in service to merely to disgust. Rather, each element is intended to immerse the audience in a familiar-yet-off world in which the impossible is probable as we watch an assassin lose the remaining shred of humanity she contains. For instance, there’s a moment between lovers, a scene that certainly helped earn the Uncut title, wherein Vos is presented with an erect penis. This isn’t to shock the audience or to imply any kind of transformation regarding gender identity, but, instead, it’s to manifest the psychological turmoil of Vos (assigned female at birth) who is inhabiting the body of Christopher Abbott as host Colin (assigned male at birth) and how the two are present in this intimate act with Colin’s girlfriend, Ava (Tuppence Middleton). Additionally, it also serves to highlight how Vos is far more engaged sexually hiding within someone else versus the earlier scene in which Riseborough-as-Vos as sex with her ex, Michael (Rossif Sutherland). Michael, we learn, is a tether keeping Vos from fully committing to her work as an assassin, so her detachment in such an intimate moment with him versus the ferocity with Ava when Vos is Colin is staggering emotionally. At its core, Possessor is less of an examination of Vos as parasitic and destructive to the people she inhabits and more about Vos’s journey into acceptance of who she is and what she wants. The violence and mimicry involved in her work brings out the truth of herself: Vos is the performance and the service she provides is her true self. This is particularly why the ending of Possessor hits as hard as it does. In the absence of a tether, Vos is free of attachment. However, a question lingers: is this who Vos wants to be or who she’s been lead to be? Much like the hosts she inhabits at the behest of her employer, is Vos nothing more than a vessel in service to a greater force? Is she the aggressor or has she, by the end of Possessor, become nothing more than the willing possessed? If you can manage to stomach the terrible violence, enacted with not a hint of glee but with pure impartiality, you’ll find much to mine within Riseborough and Abbott’s respective performances and Cronenberg’s evocative machinations.
As titillating a cinematic experience as it is, the home release offers audiences an opportunity to dig even deeper into Possessor through three featurettes averaging 12 minutes in length. Hearing from Cronenberg, the cast, and key members of the crew, the audience is taken on a deep dive of the film covering elements such as performance, set design and ideation, and, most joyously, prosthetics. Frankly, I have an uneasy stomach for gratuitous violence and there is one scene in particular which not only turned my gut but my head when it occurred on camera is something of absolute wonder when explained by special makeup designer Dan Martin (Color Out of Space). The combination of two different false heads, synthetic body parts, and a combination air/blood line were used to create this particular violent death and it’s so cool to explore academically. Less stomach-churning and more synaptic-flaring, Cronenberg’s team used red and yellow gels over the camera lens to create the psychedelic shooting of the various scenes depicting the psychic struggle between Vos and Colin. The events for the characters are already traumatic and the use of this simple trick (not CGI) convey the psychological mood incredibly. Most notably, the use of practical effects is used for almost the entirely of the film. An object floating in space or water appearing to run backwards? The creative team utilizes soundwaves. Murder and mayhem? Prosthetics and squibs. Communicating to the audience the absolute breakdown of control between Vos and Colin? A reverse projection on top of a head mold that has a tearaway mask sitting atop it. In the moment they appear absolutely convincing. In the featurettes, they are a strange and exciting magic. If there is a downside to the Possessor home release, it’s in the lack of commentary from Cronenberg himself. The three featurettes certainly offer wonderful insights from which audiences can read between the lines on the intent and meaning surrounding Vos’s journey, but hearing from Cronenberg himself would certainly make the already fairly robust features even more delectable.
There’s a moment in Possessor in which a character asks a question as to whether a choice is something of their own making or because of the influence of another. The influence, as asked, isn’t of a direct force, but of a suggestion. Small, potentially imperceptible suggestion to the individual. In this moment, Possessor is cruelly laid bare as it asks the audience to reconsider what they’ve witnessed. This is why Possessor lingers. This is why you’ll find yourself craving a visit back into Cronenberg’s world where everything is just as you remember, except for a few differences. It’s familiar and cozy, yet something lurks just beneath the surface, poking and prodding you the entire time. Vos’s journey is one of incredibly complexity and it began long before you pressed play. One can’t help but wonder if, somewhere, once we joined the ride, there was anything outside of inevitability. If there was ever a choice or only influence. That’s the part that wriggles and writhes in your brain. Be ready before you dive in.
Possessor Uncut Special Features
- Three (3) Deleted Scenes
- Panic Attack (3:46)
- Reid’s in the Pool (3:03)
- Wake Up and Count (1:25)
- Three-Part Behind The Scenes Featurette
- A Heighted World (10:31)
- Identity Crisis (14:44)
- The Joy of Practical (12:13)
- Three (3) Trailers
- Green Band Teaser
- Red Band Teaser
- Uncut Trailer
Available on digital November 3rd, 2020.
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD December 7th, 2020.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.