We have seen movies about assassins and we’ve seen movies about mind control but “Possessor,” the new film by Brandon Cronenberg (yes, he’s David’s son and seems to share some of his obsessions) now playing at select theatres and drive ins, mixes and matches the two in an unsettling, surreal hybrid of sci-fi and horror.
Anyone with trypanophobia—fear of needles—may want to cover their eyes during the film’s opening minutes as a young woman (Gabrielle Graham) impales herself with a long needle, right through the cranium. The needle is attached to a box with a dial. A twist of the dial and soon she is gruesomely stabbing a man in the neck, in public.
Turns out, it’s not really her brandishing the knife but a mercenary named Tasya (Andrea Riseborough), a mind control assassin who “possesses” people’s minds via brain-implant technology and forces them to do her bidding. Her handler, Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), helps her find her way back to her own identity after sublimating herself in someone else’s brain.
Tasya’s latest gig involves parasitically getting into the mind of former cocaine dealer Colin (Christopher Abbott), a trainwreck of a man whose girlfriend Ava’s (Tuppence Middleton) father (Sean Bean) is John Parse, a high-powered executive. A rival wants Parse dead and Colin is the perfect patsy to do the deed.
From the film’s savage opening minutes through the sex and gore splattered landscape of the middle section to the climax “Possessor” is like a nightmare. Surreal visuals of Tasya and Colin as one hideous being or a severed hand unfurling its fingers are direct from night terrors, but Cronenberg takes pains to ensure that, unlike nightmares that are disconnected scenes that play in our heads, his psychodrama has depth and meaning. His highly developed visual sense—and a bloody colour palette that would make Dario Argento envious—is eye-catching and consistently interesting but it is the film’s ideas that linger like the unsettled feeling after you wake from a nightmare.
The movie’s exploration of how technology and humanity intersect is an increasingly timely question. “Possessor” takes that crossroads to a narrative extreme but Tasya and Colin’s technological melding is a terrifying vision of a future that feels like it might be right around the corner.
Cronenberg’s sophomore movie, after 2012’s “Antiviral,” is disturbing and ambitious with an icy, cerebral veneer that will linger in your mind for a long time afterward.