Film Review: Gore vs. Libido in Brandon Cronenberg’s Sci-Fi Sojourns

by Alexander C. Kafka

The Canadian Cronenbergs are body-horror royalty, and while father David has veered toward more straightforward dramatic fare, his earlier career is echoed uncannily by son Brandon. 

No one should screen a Cronenberg film expecting to be merely entertained but rather provoked, intrigued, seduced, disgusted, and possibly outraged, occasionally all at the same time. With two features to his credit, Brandon, in his early 40s, is an interesting study in influence. He tackles societal and scientific concepts redolent of his father’s mid-career work but with the blood lust of Dad’s early films. 

Consider Brandon’s first feature, 2012’s Antiviral, in which die-hard fans seek to be injected with the viruses afflicting the celebrities they worship. On one hand, the mechanics of that premise hark back to David’s parasitic Shivers (1975) and viral Rabid (1977), but the concept and pacing also nod to 1996’s celebrity-gore Crash.     

Both writer-directors uneasily balance an almost gleeful shock-scoring sadism with a futuristic empathy, but Brandon’s equation so far still leans heavily toward the sadistic, and it will be interesting to see whether age counters or at least shades that aesthetic, as in David’s case, or whether it will crystallize it into a more polished heartlessness. 

On the basis of Brandon’s new feature, Possessor, one could argue for the latter but I predict the former. His devotion to stark, sudden butchery is still very much in the foreground here, but his intelligence, imagination, impressive attention to production detail, and sheer directorial sureness suggest that ideas will increasingly win the day over crimson goo and prosthetics. That, anyway, is my hope. 

Brandon also shares his father’s obsession with the ways science fiction can explore power, sex, and beauty. Indeed, the most haunting and heartfelt scenes in Possessor aren’t the overdetermined stabbings, shootings, and body severings but the montages of a man and a woman meltingly, tensely, thrillingly struggling to inhabit the same mind and body.

Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is an assassin whose method is to inhabit other people and make them do the wet work. Under the guidance of her mastermind boss, Girder — an understated Jennifer Jason Leigh slyly peering out from behind long locks and big glasses — Vos’s latest vehicle in a grisly corporate sabotage plan is the hapless Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott). His life was already out of control as the boy toy of a marketing mogul’s daughter. And when Voss voyages into his skin to turn him into a killing machine, Colin’s fate is even less his own. 

The problem is that for Vos, inhabiting her intermediaries is increasingly easier than vacating them, and her murders are becoming less efficient and more feral and frenzied. 

The story prods the viewer to sympathize with a killer. Abbott is compelling as Colin, who becomes psychologically divided from himself and helplessly unravels. The depiction offers, in fact, a grim sense of what it must be like to be violently mentally ill. 

Meanwhile, the wan but tough Riseborough, as Vos, conveys the quiet, calculating predator but also the prey to Girder’s manipulations.

Possessor’s setting is both contemporary and mildly disorienting. Press materials describe it as a somewhat alternate 2008, but that seems arbitrary and slightly off. The digital marketing savvy and invasion of privacy feel more 2030 — Colin’s job is to monitor home videos, including intimate bedroom footage, and look for potential window-treatment clients. There’s a hip fondness for vintage cars, but Karim Hussain’s cinematography slowly swirls in on today’s Toronto skyscrapers. The brain jacks are too bloody for their presumed precision and the body-inhabiting controllers look like 1970s electric metronomes with dusty wiring.

Whatever. Let’s just say the action is now, but not quite. The ambiguity is reminiscent of the all-too-messily human paleo-tech of David Cronenberg’s 1999 eXistenZ.

More interesting are Possessor’s four layered themes: the wish to control others; the wish to lose oneself in the personae of those others; the wish to obliterate — thus free — oneself in the process; and the transgender voyages imaginable in such leaps. 

It is in the uneasy cohabitation of Colin’s body by Vos and Colin that these play out most alluringly and alarmingly. The duo’s coerced partnership is a kind of frightening but fanciful dance, and a lovemaking sequence between Colin and his girlfriend Ava (a comely Tuppence Middleton) becomes a menage a trois of sorts, complete with excited hermaphroditic full-frontal reveal.

It’s in the love and libido, not the carnage, where Brandon Cronenberg stashes away the heart of this movie. I sense that his film future lies more where the blood pumps than where it spills.