Pull me out.
We see it all the time in antihero assassin films: the killer with a conscience. How many jobs does it take for the toll to become too much? Where do they draw the line between their professional identity and the private one they share at home with family? Love, companionship, joy—they’re all used as incentives to pull these murderers for hire out of the dark mindset that has consumed them since their days in the military or since the horrible tragedy that marked them during childhood. Hope brings the possibility of escape from the memories of ghosts haunting every waking second of every single day. Sometimes it’s enough. Sometimes their boss gets another operative to take them out instead. Welcome release arrives in the end either way.
Leave it to a Cronenberg to flip that script on its head with body horror, blood, and hallucination. The film is Possessor, Brandon Cronenberg‘s long-awaited follow-up to his debut feature Antiviral almost eight years ago. The assassin is Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), a woman with a killer instinct whose record has made her a legend amongst those inside the secretive organization to which she’s employed. Her work in the field is so peerless that her handler Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is ready to take her to the next level and groom her to take over. Because this next job will go a long way towards cementing the company’s financial security, it must go smoothly. If that means giving Vos some time off first, that’s what she will do.
Is this really what she needs, though? A debrief following the mission that introduces us to this world—one where technology allows an operative to take control of a person’s body that’s already close to his/her target in order to make the crime look like a murder-suicide—shows some cracks in Vos’ psyche, but her word is enough for Girder to move on. Rather than see her husband (Rossif Sutherland‘s Michael) and son (Gage Graham-Arbuthnot‘s Ira) as a means of grounding her to her own life, however, she can’t help but treat them as another mark. Her own body in their company becomes as foreign to who she is when hooked up to Girder’s machine. So she must prepare to go home like any other role.
Who then is the real Tasya Vos? Is it the woman in Girder’s office? The one putting on a smile for Michael and Ira? Or has her optimal form become a disembodied consciousness latching onto a stranger’s neural pathways? She’s killing people with absolute physical immunity. It’s not her hand that pulls the trigger. It’s not her eyes that watch the carnage unfold. There’s power to that displacement. There’s potential. So when Girder gives her a gun to take out a target and she chooses to use a knife instead, stabbing him over and over until blood pools around her, who benefits from the change? Would that visceral display more plausibly render her vessel (Gabrielle Graham‘s Holly) into a murderer? Or would it simply satiate Vos’ own appetite?
What then is she afraid of upon finding herself near her family? Is it fear about who she’s becoming and therefore the humanity that she’s lost? Or does she fear the bloodlust and therefore the chance that she might end up driving that knife through Michael and Ira’s necks with as much relish as before? Vos is thus a stranger in her own life now. She’s a monster devoid of remorse or emotion wearing a skin that demands her to be someone she no longer is. So of course she’ll call Girder hours after her arrival to once again get away. Of course she’ll make an excuse so as not to risk hurting them. But doesn’t her absence do that anyway? Her thirst guarantees their pain.
This duality compromises her attention so that she can no longer pull the trigger when the second part of murder-suicide comes around. Is it her? Is the consciousness she’s suppressing rising to the surface? These crises aren’t solely affecting Vos since they occur while she’s cohabiting another’s mind. Every stumble is thus an opening for the other to take back the reins. Every jolt of memory through countless eyes leaves her incapacitated. And if she doesn’t disclose headaches and interface artifacting, nobody can help her. So even if she accomplishes her mission of using Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott) to kill his girlfriend Ava (Tuppence Middleton) and her father John (Sean Bean) for a third party’s hostile takeover of the latter’s company, who’s to say she gets out alive?
Cronenberg goes all-out to portray how jumbled Vos’ mind is. First it’s colorful visual winces of pain and next a complete transposition of identity with Tasya becoming Colin and Colin becoming Tasya. If you’ve seen the poster you’ve seen the lengths Cronenberg goes to manifest this feedback loop as the body she inhabits simultaneously inhabits her own. Consciousness and flesh merge together until faces are crushed and worn in a fever dream of memories transformed into nightmares. Who has control? Who won’t pull the trigger? Our cinematic minds are conditioned to believe it’s a survival instinct and yet we know there must be something else. We know Tasya can’t yet leave these bodies because she still has another job to do that her own body cannot.
The result is a sinisterly dark psychological thriller leading up to a gruesome climax that’s as inevitable then as it is an hour earlier whether or not we allowed ourselves to believe it. A lot of the marketing push has focused on Neon releasing Possessor in its “uncut” form, but I’m honestly not sure a different cut would really lose much since many of the most disgustingly graphic scenes are very obviously gratuitous in intent. The sex is necessary, though. You have a woman inhabiting a man’s body after all, so the imagery can get wild—especially since Vos is losing her grip on reality to the point where her consciousness is nothing but code until it interfaces with a body that it can wholly embrace.
Riseborough and Abbott are both superb as co-leads thanks to them mostly playing the same character throughout. This is because Tasya Vos has become more of an idea than a person, the uncertainty of “her” wants and desires allowing both actors to lean into the anxiety and despair eating away at the vessels “she” controls. We’re watching as a killer seeks autonomy from the strings that bind them to society. We’re witnessing the seeds of freedom growing as literal disassociation provides the means with which that independence can be achieved. And it feels right. It feels authentic. Why have so many filmmakers sought to give monsters a heart when that heart is precisely what’s holding them back? Emotions are a liability. Bodies are merely hollow shells.
courtesy of Neon