The first scene of this movie is of a woman searching with her fingertips along her scalp for a small scab, through which she then pushes what looks like an audio jack into her skull. As she twiddles a dial on the attached contraption, she looks in the mirror and her face cycles through from smiles and joy to tears and despair. And that one scene pretty much tells you what you are in for with this movie.
Yes, there is some gruesome physical horror. The violence in this is violent. But that’s not the heart of the horror. Watching the face of someone as the passively experience something horrifying, are made to display or suppress their deepest emotions at will, the lack of control of it all, is disturbing.
Despite being high concept, this is actually a really simple movie. Once you accept the premise – there is an assassin who can, through the use of technology, take control of people and use them to kill targets, then commit suicide, leaving no trace of outside involvement – the plot is very straightforward. A hit goes wrong, and the possessed person comes looking to take revenge on the assassin. It’s a straight murder-revenge.
But that is not to deny all the beautiful nuance instilled into the story by Cronenberg’s directing or by Andrea Riseborough’s performance as the assassin Vos. In fact, it’s the clarity of direction in the story that allows the complexities to be explored without any distractions to cause confusion.
This is just a beautiful film. Contrasting the dull, recognisably familiar, realism of Vos’s home life, with these extravagant, otherworldly sets where she murders the rich. These opulent venues pour through these sumptuous shots, reminding me of stuff like Neon Demon, or even in some ways, the sinisterly colourful Logan’s Run. The use of light, colour, shadow, and distortion expertly creates this crocodile-brain level of discomfort with the abstract experience of being invaded, violated, suppressed, and possessed. The horror of being a passenger in these scenes of orgiastic violence, where bright red blood and white teeth go flying over these elegant surroundings, is conveyed so viscerally.
And enough praise cannot be said of Andrea Riseborough’s performance. After the movie finished, I was surprised to think of how many scenes she’s actually in. The majority of the film focuses on her in the body of actor Christopher Abbott, she only gets about 20 mins at the beginning to establish her character, then she is mostly just a haunting presence, a disembodied voice, or something he sees out the corner of his eye. So how in 20 mins, does she manage to totally hold this film in the palm of her hand?
Here’s the weird thing about Possessor, your sympathy, weirdly, is with the assassin. This film shouldn’t work. That’s not how you tell a story, giving the audience a morally bereft character, who makes no attempt at any redeeming acts, and expect people to root for them. Also, Vos isn’t some charming maverick, or loveable villain, quick-witted and entertaining, someone you love to hate. Vos isn’t trying to win you over despite her flaws. And there’s no apology for the violence she enacts – the horrendous violence, which is much more than her job requires. She’s supposed to just walk up and shoot folk in the head, but she seems to revel in their suffering, stabbing and bludgeoning them. Vos should not be sympathetic.
Yet. She is. Andrea Riseborough makes her seem fragile, vulnerable, barely holding it together, losing her self to the nature of her job. Her tiny island of domestic happiness is something she seems to hold cupped in her hands like the last flickering light of her humanity. And how protective of it she is, makes the audience feel protective of it. Whatever becomes of her, this little house with husband and child, must not be imperilled. And this especially hits home when you see characters walk out of their over-the-top MTV mansions and unreal lifestyle, into the ordinary street of her terraced house. It’s like they’re walking out a high adrenaline action film and into the real world, where real people live. Where the casual violence suddenly becomes horrifying and unacceptable.