Sunday 8 November 2020

Possessor (Uncut)

We Can Dismember
It For You Wholesale

Possessor (Uncut)
UK/Canada 2020
Directed by Brandon Cronenberg
Rhombus Media/Rook Films

Warning: Slight spoilers.

Possessor Uncut, as it’s now being called by the IMBD, to somehow differentiate it from the censored US home video version I guess, is the second feature film by Brandon Cronenberg. It’s the first one I’ve seen by him and, when I sat down to watch it, I tried to promise myself that I would try not to compare it to the works of his illustrious father, David. Easier said than done however and, I hope I don’t do the gentleman an injustice in saying that this does feel like an extension of the kind of high concept sci-fi and body horror films of Cronenberg Sr. You will probably see elements in terms of ideas which could be said to share common DNA with his fathers films... conceptually like the wonderful eXistenZ but in terms of certain elements of production design, a raft of movies like Shivers (reviewed here), Rabid (reviewed here) and so on through to around about Videodrome. I say this as a compliment rather than as a negative vibe and I certainly hope the reader will take it as such.

In the film we are introduced to Tasya Vos, played by Andrea Riseborough (Mandy from... err.. Mandy, reviewed here)... who is a ferocious assassin, somewhat estranged but, not completely, from her young boy and husband (played by Rossif Sutherland, son of Donald). She basically utilises technology which transports her psyche into another person’s body so she can carry out hits for the company she works for, becoming the dominant personality in that body. She then has to be ‘pulled out’ from the body she’s cohabiting, remembering to shoot herself, preferably through the brain, as she exits, so to leave no trace behind of what has happened. She is run by Girder, played by the always brilliant Jennifer Jason Leigh as her controller and, after she pulls out, she is given a series of basic tests to make sure the experience hasn’t left her tainted with the personality of the person she has been inhabiting for the required number of days of body infiltration.

As the processes of the film and various things are revealed, we also realise Tasya is kind of cracking up. Something is very wrong and, when she goes to see her husband, whom she is half separated from, she has to rehearse herself to sound like herself, just as she rehearses phrases and tones of expression of the people who she’s going to jump into. There’s also a somewhat psychotic tendency that seems to be developing in her. The very strong opening, where the wonderfully lit, beautiful sets are splashed with the blood of her latest kill, as we see her personality in action, demonstrates that, rather than go for a very quick, clean kill, she prefers to not use a pistol and instead use sharp objects like knives (or even relatively blunt ones) to repeatedly attack the people she is sent to kill.

And, of course, once she jumps into the person who is going to be the unwilling perpetrator of her next hit, Colin Tate (played by Christopher Abbott), things start to go a bit pear shaped for her and the edges begin to blur between who she is and who she is inhabiting. Is she the dominant personality anymore and, if not, how will she get out after her latest act of highly paid violence.

It’s a cool film which uses colour well. The director tends to use the clinical whites of his personal cinematic legacy, mixed in with warm reds and oranges for a good deal of the film. Indeed, after the opening set piece of violent demise, Tasya has her host body rub her hand in the blood and it’s a colourful, visual metaphor as she ensures ‘the mark’, so to speak, is caught literally red handed before ensuring she is blown away by security. And then, as if to say “No, you’ve not got me just yet!”, Cronenberg suddenly introduces the office surrounding of the next mark, Colin Tate, which is just huge swathes of green bashing against the rest of the film’s colour palette. Lovely stuff.  

The film also pushes a few other literary and cinematic buttons as it makes its way towards a conclusion which is, for the most part, highly satisfying. For example, this is a really old plot device. Once again, as I have been constantly for the last ten or so years of American cinema, I am confronted with the visualisation of old 1950s/60s science fiction magazine style concepts. I’ve long gotten tired of this but that’s usually because the writers and directors who filch these ideas don’t execute them in anything other than a lethargic manner. Cronenberg does it very well and, like one or two films of his pop's, this one seems to play out like something you might find in a Philip K. Dick novel. Indeed, right at the start, the actress playing the current host body to Vos has to go through a process which the audience later comes to understand as a recalibration exercise to maintain the connection between the host and the assassin. However, as soon as I saw this done the first time, I felt like I was looking at someone who was using a similar device to the Mood Organs used in Philip K. Dick’s novels Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? (filmed as Blade Runner, reviewed here) and We Can Build You.

Another thing I think I spotted is the influence, perhaps, of the good old Italian giallo cinema on the odd scene or two. After taking a severe beating, actor Sean Bean’s character has his face pinned to the floor through the centre of it with some kind of iron poker and his eye popped out in a sequence which is fairly picturesque and with a mise en scène that just screams giallo. It felt to me like it had a common thread to the films of Dario Argento, specifically Tenebrae (reviewed here). I was surprised when, reading the trivia on the IMDB after I’d watched this, the director does admit Argento as one of the influences on this film, specifically his wonderful giallo Opera. Like I said, that’s not the film I would have said was the most like this but, if Cronenberg is not talking about the slickness of his cinematic violence then it may be that he’s talking about the duality of the central protagonist in Opera, sharing a somewhat confused attitude to the murders she witnesses.

The film has an equally compelling score to it by Jim Williams which is, alas, not available as a proper CD option at the time of writing (and I’m not going for a stupid electronic download, thanks very much). This revs up the tension in certain places in the film, quite literally, as it sometimes sounds not unlike the noise made by someone revving up their motor vehicle engine... but in a musical way. This is a nice touch and really works well here. I’d love to hear this as a stand alone listen.

At any rate, Possessor... or Possessor Uncut, if you prefer (and that would be the one to go for if you intend watching it), is a really nice little masterpiece of science fiction cinema and fans of Cronenberg senior will, I’m sure, have a good time with this one. It’s got a wonderful ending (which didn’t get nearly as convoluted as I thought it was going to but, you know, sometimes simplicity doesn’t have to be a cop out) and I’m having a really hard time, to be honest, trying to figure out what the censors in the US could actually find to cut out of this. There’s nothing here we haven’t seen in previously certified films and, honestly, it says more about the strange mindset of the people who demand these cuts than it does about the pieces of art they are defacing. Seek out the uncut version of Possessor, for sure. It’s a really nice piece of movie making and I hope its not taken as an insult if I say that Brandon Cronenberg’s movie easily lives up to the masterpieces of the art form that his dad crafted. Now I have to try and see his first film, Antiviral, at some point soon. Which, you know, would certainly be on topic for the kind of year we are having, I would guess.

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