★★ / ★★★★
Brandon Cronenberg’s “Possessor” is the type of story that needed to be told straight because it is teeming with terrific ideas that touch upon what it means to be human in the modern age where we are becoming increasingly reliant upon advanced technology in order to reach milestones. Instead, the picture gets mired in entertaining unnecessary decorations, like showing how two consciousness battle within one brain or having to discern what is real versus a hallucination, that the work loses its way eventually. It is without question this is a step back for the promising writer-director who helmed “Antiviral,” one of the standout feature films of 2013.
Vos (Andrea Riseborough) has a curious occupation. She is an assassin, often assigned to kill high-profile targets, but her body stays in one place. When plugged into a machine, her mind invades another person’s who is rendered deep into unconsciousness. It is critical that this man or woman—the host—be known to the target because prior to the murder, motive must be established so that, on the surface, it is an open-and-shut case. Once the target has been eliminated, Vos is then required to put the gun inside the mouth of the host and pull the trigger. However, during her latest assignment, Vos is unable to perform the last bit. She gets lucky enough that the cops show up in time to shoot the host dead. But what about the next job?
With such a creative, energetic, and brutal first act, Cronenberg promises a wealth of social commentary. We are provided no reason as to why Vos, clearly valued by the covert organization, is showing weakness when it is apparent she has had extensive experience with assassination. This is where Riseborough’s performance comes in. She portrays Vos as tired, overworked, possibly even depressed. Although Vos’ work is science-fiction, she represents the average worker, wrung out until she is no longer useful to the elites, to the company, to the stockholders.
Vos’ direct superior, Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), claims she cares about her best performer’s well-being. There is a disconnect between performance and character. Leigh suggests that Girder is genuine with her intentions. When she looks at the exhausted Vos, there is a warmth in those eyes but also an awareness that the relationship must remain professional. But the screenplay suggests otherwise, partly because it is undercooked. We go through several sequences where Girder ensures that Vos, for instance, is able to retain her self of self right after a job, but the women’s connection is never allowed to go beyond a professional level. This disconnect between actor and script might have been interesting if the third act were expanded upon. Instead, the picture simply fades to black, offering no explanation, no punchline, and certainly no solace.
Vos spends the majority of the time inside the body of a man. He is Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), fiancé of Ava (Tuppence Middleton), the daughter of a rising data-mining company owned by John Parse (Sean Bean). This breeds curious avenues worth exploring—gender, sexuality, and sexual fluidity—but these topics are not melded into the main plot in a way that doesn’t come across forced or contrived. As a result, when Vos is exploring her male host’s body, the assassination aspect of the story takes a backseat. Momentum is sacrificed.
Still, I couldn’t help but to admire Cronenberg’s ideas. I find it entertaining from the perspective of experimentation rather than a satisfying, well-rounded entertainment. Thus, I recommend “Possessor” only to those who yearn to watch something out of left field without the requirement of the work achieving its maximum potential. One wonders what Stanley Kubrick or, to a lesser extent, Christopher Nolan might have done differently to tell this sort of story.