'Possessor' Review: Infiltrate the mind of a killer

Brandon Cronenberg's 'Possessor' allows its characters to live someone else's life and kill in someone else's skin, which is as intriguing a premise as teased.

Andrea Riseborough in 'Possessor.'
(Image: © Neon)

What to Watch Verdict

'Possessor' is visual spectacle first, hitwoman action second, as Brandon Cronenberg favors the bold and freaky in his sci-fi psychological meltdown.


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    🎭 Andrea Riseborough's breakaway.

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    🎭 Christopher Abbott's playing Riseborough.


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    🎭 Style pops, substance evaporates.

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    🎭 Immediate immersion in narrative.

Much like Mandy, Under The Skin, Come True, and countless other dreadfully phantasmagorical examples, Possessor’s appeal worships the unknown. Brandon Cronenberg pushes viewers off a ledge, as we hurdle into his body-hijacking assassination narrative without any stabilization. It’s not like Cronenberg lacks his father’s mania, represented by melting human figures as souls transfer via cranial implants. The issue becomes, with a story so profoundly disorienting, can your comprehension hold steady? If Mandy soars on the back of Nicolas Cage’s beastly charisma and Under The Skin sinks into its slumbering energetics, Possessor meddles in the space between. Where hypnotic amorphous false-flesh horror lifts otherwise scripted bleakness for bleakness’ sake.

Andrea Riseborough leads as a superstar cerebral executioner, Tasya Vos. She works for “Girder” (Jennifer Jason Leigh), whose company accepts lucrative bounty contracts from high-profile clients. Their methods? Through soul transference and virtual reality machines, agents like Tasya assume control of someone else’s body. Their latest target? John Parse (Sean Bean), an egomaniac gazillionaire with a sour attitude. Tasya inhabits Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), boyfriend to John’s sweetheart daughter Ava (Tuppence Middleton), but somehow there’s a glitch as Tate starts regaining control of his person with Tasya inside. Can the mercenary invader escape Tate’s mental prison?

Cronenberg’s production design, industrial complexes, and abstract representations of figure-melding are exquisite. I mention Come True above because both recent films have accentuated science fiction inquisition through distorted images that provoke undefined fears. Specific to Possessor, how Tasya’s “jack-in” moment à la The Matrix takes a prosthetic of Riseborough’s figure, puddles it away like those “chocolate Easter bunny meets hot hairdryer heat” videos, and replays the same footage in reverse but with Christopher Abbott’s “double” to denote Tasya’s new vessel. Or when Tate wrestles with a paralyzed Tasya for complete functional control, and he wears a cheap rubber Halloween mask version of Tasya’s face for these chilling reenactments where Tate lives Tasya’s memories within his cranial enclosure. These are, unquestionably, talented manipulations of color filtration (seething reds), grotesque morphs (seriously, that mask), and out-of-persona thrills (Riseborough’s top-half on Abbott’s bottom, fully erect).

I also mention Come True because both Cronenberg and Anthony Scott Burns throw themselves to the discombobulation of their narrative with emphasis. Possessor to a lesser degree, but still scant on detailing to focus on Tasya’s deteriorating psychological constitution. After so many missions and equal transplants, possible side-effects are tainting what should be Tasya’s dominant personality. She fears for husband Michael (Rossif Sutherland) and son Ira (Gage Graham-Arbuthnot), not knowing what she’s capable of with so much in-and-out blurring of selves. Not to mention how Tasya’s hits are becoming more violent and sloppy (pools of bloody messes), choosing knives or fireside pokers over clean pistol kills. Everything fits together in ways that are assumed, never outright connected, but for effect. Leave the audience just as dizzied as Tasya herself as an immersion tactic, I get it. I’m just not sure it’s overly successful as Tasya tiptoes her way through someone else’s existence like a societal chameleon.

Between Cronenberg’s imaginative hostility - Riseborough and Abbot’s sustaining battle for command - Possessor finds intrigue like a puzzle being pieced together by two non-collaborating parties. For example, Reeta (Kaniehtiio Horn) shows affection towards Tate, causing Tasya to balk because, welp, that’s not Ava. These moments can be confounding, and little more than passing in their glances, but work towards the broader sense of train-off-the-rails realizations. Riseborough embodies the supernatural agent of chaos role with devoted disconnection, blending sleep paralysis elements and self-confusion as her character’s profession takes a mental toll. Abbot’s performance begets more fury, whether that’s Tasya launching into action or Tate swapping back-and-forth with Tasya, fighting aloud although only one body can be on-screen. Actors work within Cronenberg’s confines so well, on talent and sellable refittings of longstanding genre ideas (privacy-invading corporations, mind control, etc.).

After Possessor ended, I wasn’t thrilled. Left questioning “the hype” as internet discourse always chatters once titles are heavily promoted after festival screenings. Having now typed my thoughts, after allowing full cinematic osmosis? Brandon Cronenberg’s talents are noteworthy; Possessor simmers, ponders, and submerges audiences in its thickest visions. Although, you won’t be tossed a lifesaver. That might be an issue for those in need of more concrete reasoning behind such a kick-in-the-teeth finale and preceding gory bits (teeth, man, leave them teeth alone). Maybe that should all be applauded, given how Cronenberg leaves us grasping for some kind of humanity as horror akin to I Saw The Devil (b-l-e-a-k) plays out with no intervention? Perhaps, but again, that’s based on how much punishment y’all are willing to take in the name of scintillating, searing styles over existential substance.

Matt Donato

Matt Donato is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic who stays up too late typing words for What To Watch, IGN, Paste, Bloody Disgusting, Fangoria and countless other publications. He is a member of Critics Choice and co-hosts a weekly livestream with Perri Nemiroff called the Merri Hour. You probably shouldn't feed him after midnight, just to be safe.