Methodically paced, morosely graphic and awash in lurid neon, filmmaker Brandon Cronenberg’s “Possessor” is a pastel-stained sci-fi nightmare wearing the shell of a ‘70s era paranoia thriller.
Andrea Riseborough (“Mandy,” “The Death of Stalin”) stars as Tasya Voss, a corporate spy tasked with infiltrating the minds of strangers through a sophisticated computer implant and executing assassinations using their unwitting bodies.
Released in a limited fashion Oct. 3, the film operates on a surreal plane somewhere between sci-fi realism and expressionist horror. The process behind Voss’ possessions is ostensibly scientific, initiated by the placement of a wired helmet shaped like a medieval plague doctor’s mask, but the operation’s effects are much less so.
Cascaded from the material world into a discordant jumble of latent emotion and thought, Voss tumbles from her worldview into her victims’, a transition the stark, rigid debriefings she receives after each job do little to cushion. The result for Voss, it seems, is a level of detachment from her work that’s begun to bleed into the borders of her personal life by the time the movie begins.
Soon, Voss’ detachment begins giving way to uncontrollable violent urges, prompting her to prepare for retirement after one last assignment: killing industrialist John Parse (Sean Bean) and his daughter Ava (Tuppence Middleton), using Ava’s boyfriend Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott) as the unwilling trigger man.
Written and directed by genre legend David Cronenberg’s son Brandon, the film does bear a number of similarities to the elder’s work (particularly “Videodrome”), but Brandon’s vision is less darkly funny and more cynical than his father’s.
The parallels between present day and the film’s fictional near-future are clear, and the intricacies of the business dealings between Voss’ company and Parse’s are appropriately mundane, setting the stage for a first act that plays like a postmodern take on a spy novel.
But even as Voss begins the ruthless execution of her assignment, the horrific implications of Cronenberg’s vision come into focus. Whether the result of a unique mind or her damaged consciousness, Voss discovers she doesn’t have total control over Tate.
Two minds in the same body sounds like exactly the kind of wacky ‘80s sci-fi Cronenberg will need to spend his career distancing himself from, but in practice it’s a game of cat-and-mouse where it’s never clear who’s the cat, who’s the mouse or what the game is.
Tate and Voss slip from their newly shared consciousness, wrestling over existence internally and externally. It’s a combination that would collapse entirely without exemplary performances from Riseborough and Abbott and masterful direction from Cronenberg.
Communicating the emotional shifts of one character is difficult enough (it’s why this whole “acting” thing even exists), so Abbott’s ability to operate as a blank slate for Voss on top of his role as Tate is nearly unfathomable, and Riseborough’s ability to encapsulate the immense variety of the human condition using only her eyes continues to mesmerize.
Voss and Tate’s battle is an internal struggle, and the visual conception of it is a far cry from the film’s bleak corporate backdrop, but the seeds that bridge the two worlds together have already been sown: just as violence is the only thing that leaks back to Voss through her work, violence is the film’s thread from the material world to the subconscious.
Tate’s resistance to having his mind controlled is as brutal and disturbing as the murders Voss commits through her victims. Bones crack, skin tears and knives thud into flesh when Voss is working, but the film’s most psychologically savage images come before and after she’s finished infiltrating minds.
The film — like plenty of modern sci-fi — raises concerns over the rapid development of technology, the changing perception of the human experience and the intrusive nature of modern society, but separates itself in its directness. Nowhere in Cronenberg’s script does he pretend to know the answers yet, but he clearly has a hunch that we aren’t going to like the answers when we get them.
In exploring the marriage of technology and human consciousness, Cronenberg has crafted a movie of dichotomies. Repressively sterile but aggressively gory, coldly detached yet imbued with rage, “Possessor” is more than a creative genre exercise. It’s the announcement of the next great director named Cronenberg.
“Possessor,” rated R, released in theaters nationwide Oct. 3.