Maybe the best approach to making a dystopian film, given the state of the planet in 2020, is to not set it many years from now. The ruined worlds of classic movies such as Blade Runner or A Clockwork Orange typically exist decades in the future, as grim warnings about the path society is on. But Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor, a gleefully gory bit of techno-horror in theaters starting tomorrow, is set in the past—an alternate 2008 where online surveillance has become the norm, city streets are eerily empty, and income inequality has reached staggering proportions. In other words, it’s a different world from ours, but a distressingly familiar and plausible one.
Possessor’s writer and director is the son of the Canadian master of horror David Cronenberg, who has made many nightmarish sci-fi standards (Scanners, The Fly, Videodrome). Like his father, Brandon Cronenberg seems concerned about technological overreach and expresses that fear through a particularly visceral brand of body horror. Possessor is one of the gnarliest movies I’ve seen in years, with moments of violence that drew audible yelps from me even as I watched it alone at home. (It’ll be available on demand next month.) But the film deploys its extreme imagery for a reason, interrogating notions of selfhood and agency through a plot where nefarious agents can tap directly into someone’s brain.
Think of this cyber-hijacking process as remote puppetry, a wireless form of body hopping that involves a computer spike being planted into your skull. Possessor follows Tasya Vos (played by Andrea Riseborough), an elite assassin who carries out her kills by controlling other people’s bodies, using them as clandestine weapons against their loved ones, and then forcing them to take their own lives before her subterfuge is discovered. It’s a naturally creepy premise: What if you couldn’t even trust your closest friends or family to protect you from harm? But Cronenberg is also fascinated by the questions of identity that would arise from such an invention, and by the limits to which Tasya can do her amoral work before the people she’s targeting begin to fight back.
Possessor doesn’t let a scene go by without cramming in some stomach-churning detail. Cronenberg animates the process of body possession with grossly beautiful practical effects, imagining Tasya’s body melting into the form of her target, a gooey soup that’s transfixing if you can suppress your gag reflex. Later, as she does psychic battle with her target Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), Cronenberg visualizes their struggle by showing him tearing her face off and trying to wear it like a mask, an indelible image that has defined the film’s advertising campaign. The aesthetic might be nasty, but it’s refreshingly original too.
Cronenberg isn’t just looking to provoke with blood and guts—like all good dystopian fiction, Possessor offers disturbing and timely observations about the world we already live in. The crucial opening sequence sees Tasya hack into the mind of Holly (Gabrielle Graham), a Black woman, to carry out a murder in public, but then struggle to make her kill herself—Tasya’s usual exit strategy. A trio of cops that come upon the scene do Tasya’s job for her, shooting Holly to death without warning. The painful and resonant scene, which the film implies would’ve unfolded differently had Tasya’s victim been white, works because of Graham. Her excellent performance helps ground the viewer in the societal cruelty that Tasya is counting on to do her job.
Later, Tasya jumps into the body of Colin so that she can target his girlfriend’s tech-boss father (Sean Bean). She’s aided by the fact that Colin’s office job allows him to peep into cellphones and computer cameras around the world, looking for mundane details (products owned, home decor) that could help shape personalized advertising. The world of Possessor isn’t quite our own, but the differences aren’t stark, Cronenberg argues: In both, people have gradually given up their autonomy, starting with their personal computer and ending with their own flesh-and-blood body.
Cronenberg’s debt to his father is obvious, but the film that Possessor most reminded me of was Alex Garland’s Annihilation, another recent work of sci-fi horror that understood the feeling of not being able to trust the body you’re in. Those movies share performances by Jennifer Jason Leigh as cold-hearted leadership figures (in Possessor, she’s Tasya’s ruthless boss), but they’re also both frightening visions of our lives, a look at present-day paranoia through a cracked mirror. In Annihilation, the antagonist was an environmental catastrophe, but in Possessor the enemy is our own ingenuity—and humanity’s willingness to let its freedoms melt away, bit by bit.