Tuesday 1 December 2020

(S)he's lost control: "Possessor"

There's a Cronenberg on the credits, so you can't say you weren't warned. After 2012's slightly underheralded Antiviral, Possessor confirms that writer-director Brandon Cronenberg - son of David - is following in his father's footsteps in more than one way. It's not just that he too has ducked behind the camera to mess with an audience's heads. It's that he's doing so trading in a similarly cerebral form of body horror as that his dad once traded in (and appears to have left behind as his tastes grew more literary). What the new film trades in specifically is the horror of being trapped inside somebody else's body, or of having somebody else trapped inside you: it's the first of this season's two Freaky Friday riffs, arriving here just ahead of the multiplex-primed, pandemic-delayed Blumhouse flick Freaky. Not for Cronenberg knowing nods and jokey winks, however. Instead, he casts broodingly serious players, and sets them against one another in a deadly case of identity theft. A thoroughly drained-looking Andrea Riseborough - colour purged even from her eyebrows - plays the top gun at a corporate assassination bureau that has developed the tech to transfer the anima of their hitpersons into the physical form of someone close to their victims, leaving those targets with no idea their loved one is about to put an end to them. Her latest contract will prove especially challenging: it demands she be beamed into a coke-dealing ne'er-do-well (Christopher Abbott), who also happens to be dating the heiress to a data-mining empire (Tuppence Middleton). The idea is that the Riseborough character gets in, gets the job done (use Abbott to kill off Middleton and her father Sean Bean, so as to leave the latter's company open to third-party control), and then gets the hell out of there. Inevitably, it's not that simple: turns out there are issues with porting an unsettled mind into a less than stable host. Brace yourself. This might hurt a bit.

If there's an immediate difference between Cronenbergs v.1.0 and v.2.0, it's money: visibly, this generation is doing rather better for funding than its predecessors. Where Cronenberg Sr.'s breakthrough films were limited to grotty tower blocks, back-alley cable stations, his son, born into indie-movie royalty, staged his debut feature inside a credibly sterile clinic for the rich and famous, and here spins a yarn that starts in a swanky hotel (scene of a frenzied knife attack: as I said, you have been warned) and winds its way into well-appointed homes as part of an unusually aggressive corporate takeover. Those tower blocks have been replaced in the Cronenberg viewfinder by glass-and-metal skyscrapers, more contemporary signifiers of oppression, and Brandon has the tech at his disposal that looks as though it could well pull off a successful bodyswap. Crucially, at all points, the money serves the ideas. This Cronenberg (b. 1980) grew up in parallel with the field of gender studies; what was present in the background of his father's work (sometimes alarmingly so, in the case of 1979's The Brood) now gets thought through, placed front-and-centre. Possessor hinges on an unsettling bit of authorial misdirection, in that - for a long time - the Abbott character never quite appears as feckless (thus as potentially murderous) as he's been billed to us by Riseborough's boss Jennifer Jason Leigh: he seems vulnerable even before he has his soul forcibly scooped out and put on ice. We're always aware that we're watching a woman inhabiting a man's body against his will - and a woman approaching the end of her tether, at that. Abbott looks as though he wouldn't harm a fly, which of course makes his character such great cover; one look at Riseborough, on the other hand, and you truly fear for the insect population of the world.

It's amazing how much Possessor wrings from the idea of penetration. The first image is of a woman struggling to insert a plug in a socket; the nasty surprise is that the socket is somewhere on her scalp. Elsewhere, weapons of various kinds pierce eternally yielding flesh (consider this your third and final warning), while the plot itself depends on people poking around where they're not supposed to be. The unspoken theme of Possessor is rape, and it's uncommonly alert to how much penetration, forced or otherwise, shapes both the male and female psyches. That line of inquiry would be unnerving enough without the ever-shifting narrative it's been wrapped up in. This film fits together at odd angles, like the magnificently perverse, Matthew Barney-like two-way therapist's couch Riseborough's body is housed on while her soul is away on business. (Linguists will be reminded that the word therapist could itself go one of two ways.) Yes, the assassination goes wrong, but it goes wrong in ways we don't anticipate, putting scenes and images in unexpected places. What's framed as a potentially climactic face-off instead slots in two-thirds of the way through, leaving Leigh's scientists to wonder whether they've created a monster, and us to wonder whether this gender-fluid hybrid is destined to balance out or come to a sticky end. The latter seems more likely, as it's apparent early on that a significant amount of that extra cash has gone on VFX. Yet, like his father, Cronenberg Jr. makes the gore count for something, not just viscerally, but narratively, thematically; even as we recoil, we're struck by how well this carnage serves the central idea of a one-body battle-of-the-sexes. If the Cronenbergs have taught us one lesson with their collective output, it's to do with how sticky we humans are as a species - how, even when we're on the verge of being wiped out, we somehow manage to leave traces of ourselves behind. Generating at least a dozen of the year's most indelible images - I shudder, even as I write, at the memory of fingers uncurling - Possessor is superbly sticky cinema.

Possessor is now showing at the Cardiff Everyman, and available to rent via Prime Video, Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI.

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