While Sundance may draw big crowds and long lines for its lineup of indie dramas, its genre offerings often serve up some of the boldest and most experimental films of the festival. This year saw a movie from the world cinema dramatic competition that was so gruesome, the festival turned away anyone under 18 who tried to get into the screenings. The movie was Possessor, and it is the most brutal and unforgiving cinematic experience in recent memory.
The film doesn’t pull any punches, as it opens with a startling scene in which a young woman inserts a needle in the top of her head and turns a dial that “calibrates” her, as we watch her face go through several emotions. Hours later she walks up to a man at a party and stabs him in the throat with a knife before repeatedly jabbing it all over his body. It turns out the woman was not acting of her own free will, but was “possessed” by Tasya (Mandy’s Andrea Riseborough), who is a killer-for-hire at a company that downloads her consciousness into the brains of others in order to make them commit corporate assassinations. It’s a bit like Inception--nefarious characters making a business of invading other people's minds--if Christopher Nolan was way more into body horror and bashing people’s skulls in with a fireplace poker.
But of course, Possessor doesn’t come from Nolan, but from Brandon Cronenberg, son of the legendary David Cronenberg (The Fly, Videodrome), who also has a similar interest in body horror, though bent slightly more toward the surreal. After making a great and terrifying first impression with his debut feature Antiviral, the younger Cronenberg here announces himself to have inherited the skills that make his father’s work so great. However, he's also carving out a new space for himself, developing a unique voice with a great visual eye that knows when to push boundaries.
Possessor follows Tasya as she receives her next assignment, which involves the triple murder of a powerful CEO (Sean Bean), his daughter (Tuppence Middleton), and her boyfriend Colin (Christopher Abbott)--who also serves as Tasya’s vehicle. However, things go south, and Colin starts to fight back. Cronenberg displays the dueling consciousnesses with flashing and nightmarish imagery such as the melting of two faces together.
As Tasya and Colin’s minds begin to blend together, the film starts to feel more like a fever dream a la 2018's Mandy. It's here that Riseborough and Abbott’s performances shine, especially the latter, who acts just as if there are two personalities fighting for control of his body. With a few subtle but fascinating hints, Cronenberg presents a large world with a rich mythology and established rules that could easily be explored in future follow-ups. But if there’s a downside to the powerful imagery in Possessor, it's how much more memorable it is than the narrative itself. Cronenberg creates an interesting story, but he excels more at presenting it through creative imagery you won’t soon forget, resulting in a film that’s a bit more style than substance.
Of course, you want to know about the gore. Possessor isn’t really a horror film, but rest assured you will feel squeamish in the best possible way. It’s a level of graphic violence that never feels cartoonish, an extremely gory movie that shocks because it is presented completely straight. Teeth are smashed out of bleeding mouths, horrific stab and bullet wounds are given full close-ups, and bodies are absolutely massacred to underscore the violence and cruelty of the film’s world. Though general audiences may have problems with this much violence, midnight crowds will go bananas every time someone dies a gruesome death onscreen.
What Brandon Cronenberg creates with Possessor is an experience unlike any other, a wildly entertaining and stomach-churning film full of unforgettable violence and nightmarish imagery that drills into your skull and makes a nest there it won’t be leaving anytime soon.
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