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Brain Hacks Have a Disturbingly Literal Meaning in Brandon Cronenberg's 'Possessor'

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HEAD TRIP Riseborough (right) and Leigh discuss brain-hacking assassination techniques in Cronenberg's sci-fi film. - COURTESY OF NEON
  • Courtesy Of Neon
  • HEAD TRIP Riseborough (right) and Leigh discuss brain-hacking assassination techniques in Cronenberg's sci-fi film.

Our streaming entertainment options are overwhelming — and not always easy to sort through. This week, I decided it was time to take a detour from Oscar Country into Midnight Movieland and watched the second trippy feature from Brandon Cronenberg, son of body-horror auteur David Cronenberg. Now streaming on Hulu and rentable elsewhere, Possessor (2020) demonstrates that the bloody apple doesn't fall far from the tree. (Note: I watched the unrated version, aka Possessor Uncut, which features gore aplenty and a bit too much nudity for the Motion Picture Association.)

The deal

Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is an assassin who's never been witnessed at the scene of a hit — because she does her job by hacking into people's brains. With the help of a shadowy high-tech organization, she takes control of the body of someone close to her target; when the job is done, she executes her host and returns to her own body, which is lying safely on a gurney in a lab.

But who is "she," anyway? How many faces can you wear before you forget who you are? Tasya's handler (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is supposed to keep her anchored to some form of self, but when Tasya visits her estranged husband and son, she struggles to connect with them. Her next job, which involves killing a tech billionaire in the body of his daughter's disreputable boyfriend, Colin (Christopher Abbott), could be her breaking point.

Will you like it?

How far can a movie get on a provocative high concept and enthralling visuals before viewers start to feel impatient with the barely sketched characters at its center? For many midnight moviegoers, I think, Possessor will offer exactly what they crave: There's a little to think about and a lot to see (and gasp at, and occasionally cover your eyes). For me, though, that recipe wasn't enough — a problem I also had with Cronenberg's first feature, the equally heady Antiviral (see below).

Combining digital cinematography with practical and in-camera effects, Cronenberg creates a dreamscape from which we always feel a little dissociated, like someone inhabiting a stranger's body. His exteriors are cold and rectilinear, his interiors bathed in neon jewel tones suggestive of the cyberpunk future that filmmakers envisaged in the '80s and '90s.

As Tasya comes apart, seeing things that aren't there, the film becomes more surreal and hallucinatory but also more visceral. The frequent spurts of scarlet blood have texture you can almost feel, as in a demented oil painting. If there's ever a film in which you'd expect a lot of digital animation, it's one about hacking the consciousness of other people. By instead getting his trippy effects with real-world objects, Cronenberg throws us productively off-kilter.

Tasya is certainly off-kilter, too, but we never quite know her well enough to care whether she regains her equilibrium. Like Tilda Swinton, whom she resembles, Riseborough is a chameleon of an actor, an ideal choice for this part. Abbott, who looks like a generic hunk, is anything but; he makes it spookily clear to us when Tasya is inside Colin's body. But we don't know much about Colin, either, which makes it hard to care whether he can regain control of his mortal shell.

While its visuals could colonize our dreams, Possessor's screenplay feels like an early draft of a middling "Black Mirror" episode. The themes and motifs are there, but the human motives remain cloudy at best. It's certainly refreshing to see a movie that refuses to portray its female protagonist as likable; Tasya has no "save the cat" moment, no maternal impulses to protect the weak. But her remoteness and alienation make the viewer detach, too.

If you simply enjoy Possessor on the level of a gory music video, it could inspire you to muse on how living online and being the curators of our personal brands messes with our heads. (What if my psyche resists being curated and marketed? Where does brand end and identity begin?) But musings can't compensate for the absence of a storyline that might have given those themes dramatic heft. While Possessor is a must-watch for fans of horror and dark science fiction, it never quite takes possession of us.

If you like this, try...

Antiviral (2012; IFC Films Unlimited, AMC+, Sling TV, Shudder, rentable): Cronenberg Jr. made his feature debut with this hopefully not prescient sci-fi flick in which obsessed fans pay top dollar to be infected with the same virus strains as their favorite celebrities.

eXistenZ (1999; Pluto TV, Paramount+, rentable): Jennifer Jason Leigh also starred in one of Cronenberg père's movies, this underrated mind bender about a game developer trapped in the virtual reality she created.

Nancy (2018; YouTube, Tubi, Vudu, Amazon Prime Video, rentable): Riseborough is icily creepy in Possessor. To see her sink her teeth into a meatier — if equally creepy — role, check out this Sundance Film Festival awardee in which she plays a lonely woman who poses as a couple's long-lost daughter.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Possessor"