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Possessor (Uncut) Review

Certificate: 18 

Director: Brandon Cronenberg

Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Rossif Sutherland, Tuppence Middleton, Sean Bean, and Jennifer Jason Leigh

Distributor: Signature Entertainment 

Running Time: 104 mins

Released: Out now

Nothing in Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor is there to fill space on screen or eat up empty minutes. A line of absolute intent threads every image, sound or scene together to create a lattice of double, triple meanings that the viewer is tasked with untangling and then untangling some more.

Andrea Riseborough (Mandy, The Death of Stalin) drifts across the lens as the weary and ethereal Tasya Vos, a corporate assassin who kills through the skin of others. By hijacking a stranger with the access and motive, her shadowy employer creates the perfect crime, ending with a gun between the teeth to facilitate the extraction. Except that Vos can somehow no longer kill ‘herself’ and instead ends the rampage of the opening sequence with ‘suicide by cop.’ 

“I’m becoming old,” says her handler Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight, eXistenZ), explaining why she no longer plays the role of the implanted killer. “I can’t recognise myself anymore.” It’s the closest Possessor gets to unambiguously explaining itself, but that one sentence underpins the entire film as Vos finds her sense of self bleeding away. Her ties to her old life – her young son Ira (Gage Graham-Arbuthnot) and her earnest husband Michael (Rossif Sutherland) – are so weak that she rehearses her small talk before she knocks on the door.

Like Rear Window (1954) rewritten by Philip K. Dick, themes of voyeurism dominate. Vos observes her next mark, Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott, The Sinner, First Man), through a long lens, picking up his mannerisms and repeating his tired lines. Tate is an empty vessel, a loser dating his boss’s daughter and counting the hours as a data grunt for a tech giant. Though much of the film is seen through claustrophobic closeups of his face, wondering just what it is – or who it is – that’s going on behind the eyes, we never come to know him. He’s just a tool, a means to an end, a host.

The symbolism comes thick and fast, reflected in mirrors or seen through frosted glass. Tate’s co-worker boorishly refers to ‘cuckqueaning’ – cuckolding’s opposite number – to refer to his infidelities, but it carries a double meaning as the fetish act of a woman watching her partner have sex with someone else. Minutes later, Tate’s banal but invasive data-mining – forcing his way through webcams to catalogue humanity’s choice of curtains – exposes him to a couple having sex. He, or she, lingers a little too long. 

Signature Entertainment | 2020

Although issued a gun, Vos prefers to get her hands dirty – cutting throats, issuing brutal beatings, and gouging out eyeballs. The practical effects as shocking in the uncut release as the explicit sexual imagery (one scene, in particular, is as arresting as anything Brandon’s father, David Cronenberg managed in his subversive Seventies salad days), and a sheet of blood another mirrored surface through which reality is cast askance. Duels between the competing psyches are shown in highly effective B-movie minimalism, red or yellow lights and physical form melting away in timelapse or grotesque latex makeup effects.

Whilst Papa Cronenberg submerged cyberpunk in excreta for the underrated eXistenZ (1999), Possessor’s uneasy and hostile take on the subgenre has more in common with Leigh Whannell’s cyberpunk revenge thriller Upgrade (2018). Indeed, much of the film can be seen as a grimy, downbeat echo of The Matrix: from the opening sequence in which Vos’ current host is gunned down by cops rather than seeing them off with a display of stylised kung-fu, to Tate’s working life as a cubicle drone and the revulsion at his manipulation by forces outside his understanding, the well-worn not-quite-now of the production design, and the AV-style jacks driven into the back of the host’s skull. 

Credit goes too to the striking feminine energy of Possessor. Tate is barely a character at all, literally penetrated by the jack and figuratively penetrated by Vos, he’s emasculated by his dependence on his girlfriend, Ava (Tuppence Middleton), and subject to the pithy put downs of her friends. In one scene, he’s straddled by Ava who wraps her hands around his throat (no kink-shaming here, we’re talking symbolism), and it’s suggested that only the presence of Vos slaps the hands away and climbs on top, marvelling at the power of her own phallus.

In another of Cronenberg’s many meaningful lines, Tate describes Ava’s father as a “human-shaped Protozoa that feeds on misery” – a direct reference to ‘brain worms’ crops up later on but as things start to go awry, doubts are raised as to whether Vos is ‘making’ Tate do anything at all, or whether she simply pressed a gun into his hand and guided it towards a partner he resents and a boss he despises. The suggestion then is that rather than being parasitic there is something symbiotic about these relationships, perhaps casting light on Vos’ unwillingness to turn her gun on her host.

Saturated with ideas about identity and individuality, surveillance and privacy, and erosion of humanity by the onset of technology and greed, Possessor offers up a meditation on cyberpunk’s major themes but brings another to the table. One of body horror’s most insidious and primal fears, but one which has also been redefined by the excesses of the Information Age is given a nightmarish new form – violation, or rape.

Possessor is on Digital HD on 1 February and on Blu-ray/DVD on 8 February

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