Possessor (Brandon Cronenberg, 2020) – Review

Brandon Cronenberg, son of esteemed body horror auteur David Cronenberg, disappeared from the movie scene for eight years after the release of his debut feature, Antiviral, a film that received some acclaim among cult horror fans but never seemed to take off. In coming back with a cast fuelled by the excellent Christopher Abbott, Andrea Riseborough, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Sean Bean, Cronenberg seems determined to bring his ideas to the mainstream among horror fans, and in making a film as strong as Possessor is there has to be a pretty good chance of his wish to become a reality.

 Admittedly, it feels quite lazy to lean on the comparison between father and son, however, given just how much Brandon takes as inspiration from his father’s ideas about conformity, fear of authority and body horror it becomes apparent that he is quite welcoming of these comments and may even enjoy them. That isn’t to say that the only inspiration for Possessor, a film about an organisation who enter people’s minds and control them to earn the big bucks, is that of Brandon’s highly acclaimed father, as there are so many other influences proudly worn on Cronenberg’s sleeve here that the film becomes entrenched in its own postmodern intertextuality, though not entirely lost to it. The deep reds of any gore and the bright colours of the set design (and the lighting!) both also bring to mind the typical connection seen in many more independent horror films to the Italian giallo films of the 1970s and 1980s, which used neon lights extensively to link themselves to a more modern style of expressionism and to really grab the audience’s attention, forcing them to listen and pay attention. It certainly feels quite strange to have a giallo-infused body horror film reminiscent of all kinds of films from Nolan’s Inception all the way to Scorsese’s After Hours and Ferrara’s rendition of Body Snatchers (for my money, the best version… just whilst we’re on the subject…) The influence of authors like Orwell also can’t be ignored, with the strong background focus on the oppressive powers of authorities in a not-so-distant or unrealistic dystopian future, examining how technology can be used to manipulate without dragging itself down with these ideas as something like Black Mirror does. 

In fact, maybe what is most commendable about Possessor is its brilliant balancing of its high concept genre play and these larger than life ideas about authority, the future and what it means to lack power in a time when the power divide between classes is so extensive. It seems that many films seem to devote themselves to one or the other, but Cronenberg impressively manages to give both roughly the same amount of screen time to breathe. It is both reminiscent of Upgrade (Leigh Whannell, 2018) in its refreshing new take on what feels much like an 80s sci-fi concept, and maybe it was just being able to feel that high concept genre films are still alive and kicking that made this film stand out all the more to me, but between the performances and Cronenberg’s intense grip over his audience thanks to his formal bravery there are a lot of things to enjoy about Possessor.

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Most notable is Christopher Abbott, who has proven himself time and time again with films like James White (Josh Mond, 2015) and It Comes At Night (Trey Edward Shults, 2017) to be one of the most exciting up and comers. It’s a genuine pleasure seeing him consistently challenge and out-perform himself as he edges closer to the spotlight. He was my main reason for being interesting in Possessor, and aside from the cinematography, Abbott’s performance might just be the best part. Cronenberg also clearly challenges himself here too, with the lack of exposition throughout being impressive given how much there is for the audience to catch up and then keep up with from the very opening scene, even if the film does become a little overwhelmed towards its finale when it tries to juggle too many different balls at once. The script’s use of mixed perspective, seeing as much of the film is concentrated on an inward battle between two minds over one body, is also great as it always sides with whichever perspective tells the audience the least information possible, also making great use of match cuts in the process to show this battle in a way that really stands out visually and looks excellent whilst communicating clearly with the audience. Cronenberg’s almost disorienting use of intense, vivacious cinematography (given a kaleidoscopic edge thanks to the occasional use of fragmented mirror shots and the fantastic editing seen throughout) is wonderful, making a point to hang on tightly to the moment and to hold on to the tension involved, whilst the editing is more intent on keeping the flow of the narrative intact (aside from a few montages that act as experimental interludes – these blasts of expression may be the best moments of the film as they make use of all of its best qualities at once in one short, sharp burst), with these two features working hand in hand to give the film both its all-important style and the justice to the narrative. The score also helps to add to the style a great deal, with these very loud and prolonged drones that sometimes sound much less robotic screams and other times sound like an industrial complex self destructing. 

Whilst it certainly isn’t for the faint of heart with the great practical effects that are used anything but sparingly throughout, Possessor seems to mark the warm-blooded arrival of a hot new name in mainstream thrillers. Cronenberg has done a great job of merging together a huge number of influences and styles without really faltering all too much in the execution of both his narrative and his ideas, making Possessor refreshing and lively as well as just outright impressive. I know I’m exciting to see what comes next from Brandon Cronenberg… let’s just hope that it isn’t another eight year wait to find out!

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