Walter Benjamin wrote that “Things are only mannequins and even the great world-historical events are only costumes beneath which they exchange glances of assent with nothingness, with the base and the banal. He was describing his experience of hashish which he took in 1928 as part of Ernst Joël’s and Fritz Fränkel’s psychopathological experiments. Brandon Cronenberg’s POSSESSOR offers a glimpse into the same psychedelic world that Benjamin saw under the influence: a world where human bodies are mannequins and the banality of physical existence is a visceral horror.
Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is an assassin in the near-future when identity is so tightly controlled through ID documents, biometrics, and good old-fashioned uniformity that the only way to infiltrate somewhere is to become someone else. Her handler, Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), identifies a person close to their target and uses advanced technology to insert Vos into their bodies so she can get close enough to assassinate them. It’s a demanding process that threatens to engulf Vos when she’s inserted into a host (Christopher Abbott) who starts to push back.
POSSESSOR’s future is unglamorous and casually dystopian. Employees of a megacorporation sit at their virtual desks and spy on customers to identify what products they already own or might want to own. Assassination is grimly violent and psychically damaging, not slick and James Bond-like. It’s a mundane dystopia, unsettlingly close to our own reality. A dystopia of the base and the banal where bodies are costumes and violence or sex is the only emotional high available.
The film represents possession through an abstract sequence showing the self melting away and transforming into another person. It’s wonderfully Surrealist with its waxy heads reminiscent of Jan Švankmajer’s animations. The film’s striking imagery pushes us towards the unsettling ideas at the heart of POSSESSOR: what would it actually mean to be someone else? Can we conceive of inhabiting another body than the one we are fated to inhabit? What about literally wearing another person’s skin? What horrendous damage would being in another body do to our psyche? POSSESSOR exposes these limitations of selfhood and reveals that not only is there a horror in being in someone else’s body, but there’s also horror in being in any body.
POSSESSOR draws inevitable comparisons with Cronenberg’s father’s work and the recurring theme of body horror for which his father is well-known. But unlike in David Cronenberg’s films, POSSESSOR’s horror isn’t about bodies pushed to monstrous extremes or bodies distorted beyond the norm but is in the mundane fact of having a body at all. Brandon Cronenberg finds horror in the mere corporeal presence and the banal of the visceral physical – whether violent or sexual (or both). His camera lingers on knives steadily piercing flesh; blood oozing from wounds and spilling onto the floor; teeth being dislodged by force; skin that stretches over our bodies like a mannequin’s plastic. Even a shot of air from a hand dryer rippling the skin reminds us that our body is flesh and that awareness is unsettling.
As the film’s abstract images give the audience an unsettling distance from their own bodies, it also develops some distance from the psychology of the film’s characters. We’re invited to imagine the horror of being in another body, but we don’t get much insight into how the characters feel about it or indeed how Cronenberg feels about it beyond a sense of disgust. This leads to a conclusion that, in terms of plot, should be emotionally resonant but doesn’t actually land in the way that it should. POSSESSOR is an intelligent and visceral thriller that does enough right to make it deeply memorable and weirdly unsettling but doesn’t say much beyond its horror of the physical.