Movie review: “Possessor” (2020)

“I want to show you some photographs we retained from your work on the Holly Bergman job. (slide changes, filling the projection screen with indistinct red) Why stab Elio Mazza? You were provided with a pistol.”

“Well, maybe it just seemed more in character.”

“Whose character?”

The young woman regards herself in the hotel room mirror dispassionately, as if she and her reflection have only ever met in passing. Her movements are halting and deliberate, almost timid, as she touches her head, hair vacuum-sealed into tight cornrows. She seems to await an outside signal imperceptible to all but her. Some indeterminate time and drastic self-care later, she now looks markedly different – hair straightened to shoulder length, wardrobe smart but not attention-seeking – though no differently. Finally, she stirs, and leaves, businesslike if still somewhat detached, and descends a staircase before merging into the flow of humanity that is metriculating towards a conference room. She picks a large man engaged in jovial conversation out of the anonymous throng and moves with purpose through the crowd, snatching a kitchen knife off a catering table in passing. No sooner has she entered the man’s immediate proximity than she buries the knife in his neck. The ballroom floor empties in horror, scattering as if moved by a bomb, as the man, face frozen in shock and gushing blood through his fingers, sinks to his knees and collapses. The young woman regards her handiwork for a pregnant, uneasy second, then speaks three words aloud: “pull me out”. She fumbles a moment before producing a pistol from her purse, then jams it into her own mouth. Police filter into the room’s chaotic remnants and fan out as she struggles in vain to pull the trigger. Exasperated, she finally turns the gun on the advancing force before jerking backwards and crumbling under a hail of incoming bullets.

Cut to an austere industrial backroom as a gaggle of aides that split a harsh difference between nurse and jailer attend to an entirely different woman – older, gaunt, blonde, and white – who emerges hyperventilating from beneath a sort of apparatus that looks like a cross between a CT scanner and the face hugger from Alien. By and by they stabilize her and she begins to regain bearings we can tell without being told were almost completely shaken loose during this experience – whatever, in fact, it was that she, and by extension we, just experienced. Enough so that the debriefing can begin. The woman, Tasya Vos (a haunted Andrea Riseborough), is a paid assassin of the highest order and skill – if not commensurate renown – and later sits across a table from, for lack of a better term, her handler, a careworn, middle-aged bean counter we will only ever know as Girder (the always welcome Jennifer Jason Leigh), unpacking her latest successful assignment. Committing the perfect crime takes support, technological infrastructure, and steady nerve. Everything about the ballroom killing went according to plan, more or less. Vos, by way of the aforementioned tech, assumed control of an unwitting human vessel and directed her on a kamikaze mission, albeit one the pilot could escape, the end of which was the elimination of a particular high value target with only the trigger-woman as unfortunate collateral damage. Girder professes concern for her charge’s mental health, though her primary interest lies in whether certain uncharacteristic deviations from script – the improvised murder weapon, the extended, unnecessarily messy endgame – might indicate something more potentially worrisome down the road. Vos, meanwhile, is already preparing for her next job.

Hands down the best new film I have seen during my extended exile from the multiplex, Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor is an insidious sort of onion, simultaneously noxious and intoxicating, that begins and ends with the enigma of this woman and peels off layer upon layer of pretense and defense, flesh, blood, and sinew – somehow leaving the mystery not just intact but more potent – until, finally, only a grim death’s head skull remains, and then begins digging away furiously at the bone. Not since the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men – the equally tragic story of a wholly other species of implacable killer – has a movie, any movie, so thoroughly overpowered my will to resist. Possessor is the cinematic equivalent of a page-turner novel. It fascinates, challenges, and unnerves with bottomless facility, and maintains an inexorable hold on the audience from its first minute to its last, though the grip strength and position does subtly change throughout – from tight to viselike to strangling, from forearm to temples to throat. Much of that is attributable not just to Possessor’s basic premise – which, with all its complex moral finery and upending societal implications, is worthy of a Philip K. Dick short story – but to how it is confined and refined, where it inevitably folds in on itself a half dozen or more times and emerges exponentially stronger, before being given excess room to breathe by Cronenberg’s cunning, drum-tight script. Who is this woman? Why does and how can she do these unspeakable things? Enough for any movie alone, here it’s the tip of the iceberg.

Modern companies in their literature usually expend at least a word or two in passing on the importance of maintaining “work/life balance”. As Vos stands at the end of a row of brownstones clearly rehearsing lines for a future social call, then repeats them with feeling to her estranged husband when he meets her at the door, it’s safe to wonder whether the distinction for her has disappeared entirely.* She tucks in her son and makes love to her husband. Both know only that she travels for work an inordinate amount, and is necessarily distant. We later see her similarly mimic the speech and mannerisms of the next identity she will assume – that of henpecked society husband Colin Tate, who, after two days of conspicuous mental deterioration, should, according to plan, suddenly snap and kill his wife and her robber-baron father so that the company can pass to a particular family member as rightful successor – and the juxtaposition is both obvious and unsettling. Is Vos at heart an assassin, an actor, a voyeur, or some toxic combination?** Why attempt to reconcile with her family despite confessing to Girder she has knowingly become a danger to them? I spent the first 35 minutes of Possessor alternately spellbound and – as what I grudgingly admit as the only net positive of forced streaming at home – pausing on occasion to merrily jot down notes for this review.*** Many of these not only fell well short of inclusion, they honestly felt moot if not obsolete by the film’s midpoint…though damned if they weren’t largely answered by the end anyway. 

*Cronenberg introduces a nifty momentary blurring effect that he uses as a recurring mechanism to visually indicate the disconnect between parasite and host, between driver and car…basically whatever analogy you wish. As the reality of the arrangement becomes more tenuous, and, as a direct result, violent, this and other techniques crowd in and eventually somewhat overtake the film, much as Vos does to her innocent vessels.

**Girder tellingly refers to each assassination as not a mission or an operation but a performance, and some of the most affecting moments of “Possessor” concern Vos as she strains for baseline credibility while engaging an uncomfortably intimate audience of one. 

***Nevertheless, it might be useful to have a psychiatrist on standby as you watch, because you will have questions, and likely some I didn’t think of. Perhaps you’re even married to a shrink, which would theoretically be helpful. Though I can definitely think of more harmonious options for date night. 

The questions pile up, and continue to well after the worm inevitably turns (then turns again). This story would be served just as well and perhaps even better as part two of a four-hour miniseries, or part three of a six. It’s that deep and that consistently interesting. The brilliance of Possessor is that it actively invites the questions I’ve already posed, plus numerous others I’ll withhold, before immediately rendering them irrelevant in the service of something bigger and more shocking, consigning them instead to swim around in your own headspace. This is a movie that stays with you. I can speak to the quality of its direction – which in its angular craftsmanship and phantasmagorical edge echoes Cronenberg’s immortal father, David (The Fly, Scanners, Dead Ringers, The Brood) – and script – also by the younger Cronenberg, and, for my money, as provocative as anything his father ever created while also more elegant – as well as the central performances by not just Riseborough but Christopher Abbott, whose turn as the possessed Colin Tate never strains credibility and eventually sends the movie into a whole new dimension of impact and heartbreak. Not unlike the elder Cronenberg’s Videodrome, Possessor isn’t a straight horror film so much as a dystopian psychodrama that occasionally horrifies, though, when called upon, it goes for the jugular and just keeps tearing. Lest you worry I might have given away too much of the movie with my scene-setting introductory graphs and other assorted plot points, please rest assured I have revealed just enough and no more. I consider it a sacred trust to steer towards Possessor as many interested parties as I can, or at least those who, ahem, possess the curiosity, love of pure cinema, and cast-iron stomach it requires.

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