If you’re David Cronenberg’s kid and you’re also a filmmaker, there are really only two paths open to you. You either set out to create a career so separate from the enormously distinctive one of your dad that you establish yourself as a creator of cozy romances or cheery, repairing-an-Italian-villa comedies. Barring that, you could decide comparisons are inevitable and just lean into the legacy of body horror, technological nightmares, ruthless near futures, and memorable violence that comes with the Cronenberg name. The choice Brandon Cronenberg made was clear from his 2012 debut, Antiviral, a chilly if minor affair starring Caleb Landry Jones as an employee at a clinic that sells celebrity pathogens to fans looking to connect in some way with their idols. Possessor, his latest, belongs even more firmly in the tradition laid out by Cronenberg Sr., being an outrageously gory, emotionally aloof thriller about a woman named Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), who is part of an agency that specializes in industrial assassinations. Possessor also owes something to the ruthless corporate-state worlds of William Gibson and the spiky nihilism of Vincenzo Natali — in short, it’s an attempt to stake out more ground on behalf of Canadian sci-fi and horror.
If Possessor ultimately feels more like a testament to its director’s excellent taste in influences than a film that entirely gels in itself, it’s still a thoroughly troubling watch. It takes place in a glossy, anonymized Toronto — Toronto in an alternate 2008, per Cronenberg — that comes across as a thriving hub for international industry and a non-place at the same time. The company Tasya works for, Trematon, is based there and seems to have deep resources, though she mostly deals with Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), her handler and boss, a veteran with the tech that Tasya has become a specialist in. Trematon’s involvement in the killings it commits goes unnoticed because they’re done by other people. Agents put a brain implant in a chosen host, then Tasya uses a device to merge with the unlucky person and control their body to commit murder. The film starts with one of these missions, as Tasya puppeteers a young woman named Holly (Gabrielle Graham) through a hotel lobby and up to a party where she has been booked to work. Instead, Tasya has Holly march through the crowd and stab a man repeatedly with a steak knife. Blood spurts everywhere, and she rubs some of it thoughtfully between her fingers before putting a gun into her mouth. Then the cops arrive; she turns the weapon on them and is shot down.
It’s a luxuriantly extreme sequence, though its brutality is meant to be a sign that all hasn’t gone as planned. Tasya was supposed to shoot her target, not aerate him like a lawn, and she was supposed to make Holly kill herself, something she was unable to do. What went wrong, however, remains an open question. Riseborough, bleached blonde and almost monochromatic in this movie, is a chameleonic actor with a fascinating face, but Tasya’s a stubbornly opaque character whose desires remain obscure. Maybe the obvious stresses of using the mind-meld device are getting to her, or maybe she just has a taste for violence. When she’s at home with her son, Ira (Gage Graham-Arbuthnot), and her blissfully oblivious husband, Michael (Rossif Sutherland), from whom she’s temporarily separated, she keeps having flashbacks to severing her target’s artery on her last job. It’s unclear if this indicates trauma or a repressed desire to inflict pain on whoever she’s around. “Even now, I can see a small thread running from your skull to a life I thought you’d moved on from,” Girder murmurs to Tasya, as though these human attachments were a chrysalis from which her protégée is refusing to emerge and leave behind.
The bulk of Possessor concerns Tasya’s next job, one that finds her taking over the body of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), a ne’er-do-well who has stumbled into a relationship with Ava (Tuppence Middleton), the daughter of data-mining magnate John Parse (Sean Bean). The mission starts going woozily wrong almost immediately, with Tasya, as Colin, seeing strange artifacts in her field of vision and periodically having her control slip, the images onscreen smearing as she and her host separate into two people battling for control. It should be suspenseful, but it isn’t, because neither Tasya nor Colin feels all that solid as a character, as good as Abbott is at playing a stranger in his own body. Neither his life nor Tasya’s feels at all invested in, with these two figures serving as pawns in wars being waged by corporate executives. Instead, the universe through which the pair of them moves is what’s enthralling — one that’s all glass apartments and office towers and callous indifference. More disturbing than the film’s intense acts of remote-controlled slaughter and speculations about loss of self are the glimpses of Colin’s job drudging around the low levels of Parse’s company. He puts on VR goggles and skims through private webcam feeds to make note of whatever is in the room. Some videos are of empty rooms, some are of kids, and some are of couples fucking, and everyone seems indifferent or just resigned to this invasion. It’s awfully close to our world, just a little bit more alien and a little bit worse.