The second feature film from Cronenberg Minor is an ambitious, challenging and flawed study of the battle to hold on to who we are.
According to Wikipedia, Brandon Cronenberg originally planned to be a writer, painter or musician, before “he came to realize that film contained all those elements”. We might wonder how old he was when this startling revelation came to him, given that his father is one of the great filmmakers, noted for his visual style and erudite, literary films. In any case, Cronenberg Jr became a filmmaker and – like a chip off the old block – seems to be specialising in the sort of body horror that his father made his own at his peak. I’m sure this is not simply riding on the Cronenberg coattails – no doubt the same obsessions run through the generations. We are, we admit, always a touch cynical about children following in the parent’s footsteps when it comes to film, music, television or any other world that is riddled with nepotism. It seems they have more to prove, and that might be unfair – but often, it isn’t.
Brandon Cronenberg is probably all too aware that people are going to judge him based on his father’s work, especially when he is working in very much the same area. It would not be unfair to say that Possessor feels like it is cut from the same hallucinatory cloth as Videodrome or eXistenZ (it even shares the same star, Jennifer Jason Leigh, as the latter film), though that’s no bad thing. If you are going to lift ideas, then lift from the best, even if the best happens to be your dad. But all that said, it would be wrong to say that this is mere imitation. Possessor shares themes and ideas with those films, but it goes its own way and has its own definite style. That Brandon’s visual style is (currently) inferior to David’s is no big thing. Most people’s visual style is inferior to David Cronenberg’s.
Possessor has Andrea Riseborough (seemingly channelling Tilda Swinton at this point) as assassin Tasya Vos – the Cronenberg penchant for odd names also jumping through generations, it seems – who is a ‘possessor’ – that is, she has her consciousness implanted into another body in order to carry out contract killings. We first see her as a young woman who carries out a brutal stabbing before failing to commit suicide (a necessary act to tie up loose ends, it seems) – Vos is struggling to maintain control for this vital last act. Still, this doesn’t prevent her boss Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) from sending her on the company’s biggest job, a massive power grab by a disgruntled stepson that involves Vos possessing Colin (Christopher Abbott), the boyfriend of Ava Parse (Tuppence Middleton). The plan is for Colin to kill Ava, her angry and arrogant father John (Sean Bean) and then himself, paving the way for the stepson to inherit everything – and for the company to then blackmail the stepson. Invariably, things don’t quite go according to plan, and Vos finds herself struggling to maintain control, leading to Colin seeking revenge against her and her family. Along the way, the film explores ideas of how anyone could hold onto their humanity when either occupying or being occupied by another, and how much of one bleeds into the other.
This is a rather simplified version of a story that swerves continually in different directions, leaving you unsure of just where it will go. To Cronenberg’s credit, he keeps the narrative focused – this isn’t one of those movies that simply stops making sense just to throw the audience off. While there are deliberate moments of confusion (for the characters as well as the viewer), these are for the greater good and the film actually has a pretty straight-forward structure once we are up to speed about everything. There’s a certain amount of immediate exposition, spelling out what is going on, and I rather appreciate that – once we have what is essentially a synopsis of who is who and what is what out of the way, we can sit back and enjoy the unfolding narrative. I’m glad to watch a film without constantly scratching my head in confusion as a director who thinks he’s jolly clever fails to explain even the basic relationships between characters and events – and that’s far too common an assurance these days within the precious world of ‘elevated horror’, a worthless movement that this film might well be seen as part of.;
Cronenberg keeps things moving at a solid pace – the film isn’t rushed, but there are no pointless lags either. And this is a movie that certainly pushes at various taboos – the graphic violence is brutal and often exceptionally gory and prolonged, though that perhaps isn’t all that shocking any more – with the possible exception of a genuinely startling and brutal moment towards the end of the film that breaks one of cinema’s taboos in spectacular style. Rather more unexpected in a modern film are some rather frank sex scenes, including a couple of erections and a naked woman with her legs spread; this is not what we might expect from a commercial science fiction film; indeed, not the sort of thing we now expect in a film that has British financing, what with all the hand-wringing over appropriate behaviour, intimacy consultants and a push by filmmakers and critics alike to remove sex and nudity entirely from film and TV, lest it be seen as offensive or exploitative. It must be said that the sex scenes are vital to the narrative and our understanding of the characters, and the version of the film that they have been cut from – there’s a three-minute shorter version floating around in America, which has also oddly been submitted to the BBFC, even though the full version was passed uncut – must feel oddly compromised.
Irritatingly, the film does have a modern cinema tendency towards a certain trendy murkiness – everything is dark, all the time – and mumbling, none of which does it any favours and will almost certainly date it in no time. Okay, every film looks like the time that it was made, but I don’t think history is going to be kind to the sort of muted, muffled cinema that is currently fashionable. This lets everything down because there are impressive performances all round and some starling visual moments that would be much better if you could actually see what was happening more clearly. It’s irritating because you get the feeling that – like father, like son, perhaps – Cronenberg is an instinctive visual artist with an impressive style, and I’d like to see that allowed to flourish without pandering to the ‘elevated horror’ need to be above itself.
So, Possessor is impressive, flawed, frustrating and startling. It’s not up to the standard of the older Cronenberg’s work, and perhaps it is unfair to be making that comparison – but if you are making the same sort of work, then the comparisons are inevitable I’m afraid (had Possessor been a knockabout comedy, then I wouldn’t even consider comparing the two filmmakers). It does suggest that the family legacy is in good hands, especially as David has long since left this type of thing behind.
Possessor is on digital platforms 27 November from Signature Entertainment
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