On a recent rewatch of Inception, which is low-key the most bizarre blockbuster of the 2010s, I couldn’t help noticing just how much exposition Christopher Nolan packed into his movie. This isn’t quite breaking news: In an effort to perhaps make his ideas more palatable to a mainstream audience, Nolan tends to overexplain every detail. (Or maybe that’s just how he likes to roll, although I must add the caveat that I still haven’t seen Tenet because I don’t want to catch COVID-19.) Inception tries its darndest to exhaustively break down how, exactly, its spies inhabit other people’s dreams—and while some of that information is helpful, it mostly just takes time away from the real selling point of Nolan’s film. Let’s face it: Inception rules because of its visuals, and moments like cityscapes folding in front of Ellen Page’s face like a sheet of paper will stick with you after your viewing is over.
While I’m sure Tenet shares some elements of Inception’s DNA—namely, Nolan’s penchant for messing around with time and reality—the earlier movie is also an interesting comparison point for a film operating at a much smaller scale. In Possessor, Brandon Cronenberg’s second feature film, we’re introduced to a world where a mysterious tech company can hijack people’s bodies with brain implants. In the film, an agent takes over a person’s consciousness and executes a high-profile assassination before making the host kill themself—a heinous, invasive crime that doesn’t leave a trace. (Props to Possessor’s marketing team for the film’s excellent tagline, “No Body Is Safe.”)
In the hands of another filmmaker, Possessor would probably drown its audience in all the details of this nightmarish technological breakthrough: how exactly it works, how it’s been unleashed on the world, how many politicians and business magnates have been killed, etc. Instead, Cronenberg is more interested in creating a surreal, dread-inducing mood. While the work of Cronenberg’s father, the body horror god David Cronenberg, is a clear inspiration—like father like son!—the way that Possessor quickly becomes an orgy of bloody violence also has shades of the work from self-indulgent auteur Nicolas Winding Refn. (If you know me, you know that’s about the highest compliment I can give.)
Possessor opens in the middle of one of these body hijackings: At a social function, a young Black hostess repeatedly stabs an oily businessman in brutal fashion. (There is lots of stabbing in this film, all of it making a squishy noise I hope to soon forget.) But rather than shoot herself, the woman hesitates: Her parasitic host can’t seem to pull the trigger. The cops who soon arrive on the scene do the job for her while the spy, Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), reconnects with her real body at company headquarters after the host is killed. (If there is a downside to Possessor’s bare-bones plot, it’s that the movie doesn’t examine the implications of a white person taking control of a Black woman’s body and how the police responded to the situation with excessive violence.)
As you might imagine, Tasya’s work takes a psychological toll. She is reevaluated by her boss Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who asks her a series of questions and gives her totems—like her grandfather’s pipe, or an encased butterfly from childhood—to identify. While Tasya passes the exam, it’s clear that these body-hopping assignments have made her more uncomfortable in her own skin, and all the less human for it. Before returning home to see her son and estranged husband, she recites “Hi, darling!” and “I’m absolutely starving!” to herself until she’s convinced she doesn’t sound as lifeless as Mark Zuckerberg.
Rather than take an extended break from work, as she originally promised her husband, Tasya immediately jumps into her next assignment. A new client wants the CEO of a data mining company, John Parse (Sean Bean), assassinated, along with his daughter Ava (Tuppence Middleton). The plan is for Tasya to inhabit the body of Ava’s boyfriend, Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), who works a dead-end job at the company. The “narrative” behind the attack is Colin’s shady background—he used to be a coke dealer—and his contentious relationship with the Parse family.
But, as Tasya’s reluctance to pull the trigger in her previous assignment intimated, complications in taking over Colin’s body arise. The most compelling visual components of Possessor highlight the struggle between the two characters—presented in a trippy sort of metaphysical plane—as the line between control and their respective identities becomes increasingly blurred. It’s right there in the poster. This shared perspective, and the question of whether Tasya or Colin is in control at any given time, appears to be almost freeing for both parties: a way to uncover and express violent sublimated desires. (Hint: This is where the squishy stabbing noises make a triumphant return.)
Neon, which is distributing Possessor in the United States, has branded its release as the “uncut” version of the film—though, without another cut readily available, it’s hard to know just how much excess gore is being flexed for an already violent movie. Possessor’s many gross-out moments will certainly be a big selling point for horror aficionados—as someone with a serious aversion to needles, especially when they’re jammed into heads, I definitely had to look away from the screen at times. But Cronenberg’s film has a lot more on its mind. That the CEO targeted for an assassination is in charge of a data mining company is no coincidence, nor is the scene in which Tasya-as-Colin gets a taste of her host’s day job. Seated next to an assembly line of corporate drones, Colin puts on Oculus-like goggles and spies through people’s webcams to get a better idea of consumer habits. In this sequence, he’s jotting down the different kinds of curtains people own and, naturally, stumbles upon a couple having sex unaware that Big Brother is watching.
The vibe is extremely “you should’ve read through the terms and conditions more thoroughly if you didn’t want a powerful company peeking through your webcam,” and underlines the uncomfortable relationship between technology and humanity. (It’s easy to imagine the basic premise of Possessor being formed into an episode of Black Mirror.) But that relationship goes both ways: This movie isn’t a case of Machines Rising Against Us, but rather humanity’s worst impulses emerging through technology. Even autonomy has a price. The scariest part of Possessor might not be its impressive gore or violence, but that Cronenberg’s film feels like a work of science fiction that could eventually become reality.