(BEYOND FEST 2020) FILM REVIEW: POSSESSOR transcends the body horror genre to be one of 2020’s best films.


Aided by tremendous performances throughout, writer/director Brandon Cronenberg’s science fiction take on the future of high priced assassination is a tragic character study on the loss of self-identity.

Human beings define ourselves through our experiences and life choices. It’s the hard knocks and lessons learned in our life that make us who we are. You might struggle as you grow up, but those struggles turn you into the person that finds the partner that complements you perfectly; that relationship that leads you to a child you can’t possibly imagine living without, that you couldn’t imagine a life without that person being there. The relationships you build also grant you access into particular worlds; worlds that others not blessed with familiarity could never experience … or exploit.

These two paradigms — what makes a person uniquely themselves and the use of personal identity and relationships as passports to intimacy are themes that Brandon Cronenberg eerily explores in his latest film, POSSESSOR, which premiered September 24th at Beyond Fest and opens in theatrical release on October 2nd. As the film opens, we are fixated on a hostess named Holly (Gabrielle Graham) who seems to be running the gamut of emotions from sadness to happiness as she looks at herself in the mirror having stabbed herself in the head with a needle. There is a tangible tension and sadness in this sequence which places us off edge as viewers. She suddenly heads to work, adrift in a sea of technicolor yellows and blues, barely addressing her co-workers, and as she heads to the bar, she suddenly finds herself drawn to a heavy-set man whom she violently begins to stab to death. The act itself is prolonged physical and violent as Holly is somehow lost in the pools of blood that his corpse has rained upon the amber penumbras of the bar. Holly reaches for a gun to end her life, but finds herself unable to pull the trigger. She commits suicide by cop as the police rush her and that’s where we find the film’s frightening premise. Holly isn’t Holly; she’s a hostess who was “possessed” by Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), an agent for a company that handles high-priced assassinations by psychically planting its assassins in compatible bodies with access to its targets. Tasya is one of the best at this form of sci-fi identity theft. But while she excels at this job of being other people, her own life is falling apart. She’s separated from her husband and her interaction with him and their son is a performance every bit as calculated as the performances she gives as her marks. She’s lost herself in the process, a dangerous truth she’s unable to tell her handler (Jennifer Jason Leigh) as well as her family, as loss of self for even a second that can cause the body’s true personality to take control.

This comes to a head in her next job, one in which she is planted in a man named Colin Tate (Christopher Jacob Abbott). Colin is in a relationship with the daughter of a businessman (Sean Bean), whose son wants them out of the picture so he can gain control of the family empire; a move which would also set Tasya’s agency into a uniquely dominant position. But as Tasya-as-Colin navigates this world of the haves, she struggles to maintain control of Colin – a struggle that ultimately finds them both fighting for their individual selves in a violent clash to see who can take more away from the other until they break.

Cronenberg’s film owes as much to his father’s work in films like Videodrome, Scanners, and eXistenZ, as it does to films like Christopher Nolan’s Inception and the work of Phillip K. Dick. Much like Nolan’s seminal film, Possessor works best when its leads’ frailties and loss cause their plans to go awry. Abbott and Riseborough are playing a dual role in many ways, as they both struggle for control of Colin’s body. Abbott’s performance in the film is something extraordinary as he has to portray two completely different characters in one body and how they respond differently to the same stimuli. He can be hauntingly fragile to frightening depending on the scene. Riseborough is very much the Tilda Swinton of the avante garde horror scene at this point; as she commands the screen with her haunting eyes and face whenever she’s on-screen. But it’s a combination of their tremendous performances, as well as those supporting performances by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Gabrielle Graham that really make the film and its haunting ending work. The other key ingredient being the film’s beautiful production design, coupled with its cinematography and practical effects work. Many sequences in the film, particularly the transference scenes and those where Tate and Vos struggle for psychic control, are something of a fever dream that lay somewhere between Jacob’s Ladder and Scanners. But ultimately, it’s Cronenberg’s script, which seems focused on those elements which make us truly who we are as individuals, versus the industrial capers and gunplay of secret agents and assassins, that truly shines and makes the film transcendent of genre fare. Tasya holds onto the little details of the steps that brought her to the journey she is on now. If those steps and their details start to fade, then who is she but just as much a tool as the machinery which sends her to kill. This fear, coupled with one of the most shocking endings I’ve seen in film this year, is what makes Possessor one of the year’s best films. One where the stakes are truly high and no one really wins.

– POSSESSOR 5/5 Stars

Brandon Cronenberg’s sci-fi assassin film transcends genre and is a study of the self that reminds one of Inception, while being a much better version of the same film in many ways.

  • Bryan Conner

    Great, write up. I absolutely loved this film!