Brandon Cronenberg’s directorial debut 2012’s Antiviral was an icky take on our celebrity obsessed culture, where our lust for true connection with our heroes meant purchasing and injecting their diseases. With incredibly striking visual imagery, a peculiar fascination with needles piercing skin and impossibly white sterility, it heralded a new voice in the intersection of body horror and speculative science fiction. In a way Cronenberg was simultaneously hamstrung and propelled by his surname. It was too easy for critics to see his father in his work, though he did himself no favours by entering a genre where his father was such a pioneer.
Possessor mines similar terrain, utilising murky corporate strategies and paranoid technological fears as a propulsion for some more body horror, but so much more, grappling with notions of identity and free will.
Where Christopher Nolan went Freudian in Inception, Cronenberg goes parasitic, yet the reason is surprisingly similar: corporate greed. Andrea Riseborough (Mandy) is Tasya, an assassin, or possessor, who infiltrates an unknowing and unwilling host, commits murder and is extracted via the host’s suicide. Tasya has been doing this for some time, and remnants of those she has possessed are starting to integrate into her psyche, leading to a relationship breakdown with her family, though also affecting her ability to maintain control over her host. There’s also a rage bubbling beneath her cool somewhat detached exterior. Despite having a gun to dispatch her victims, she frequently goes for a bread knife, or fireplace poker, stabbing repeatedly in a bloody sadistic frenzy.
Highly explicit both sexually and in terms of violence and gore, Cronenberg and cinematographer Karim Hussain (Random Acts Of Violence) use a variety of in camera effects to highlight the loss of self and the battle for supremacy for the host’s body. In some ways the feverish, psychedelic imagery is reminiscent of Mandy, though it’s significantly more disturbing and gruesome. It’s technically brilliant and imaginatively shot, where a block of flats looks impossibly foreboding and blood has never been so crimson. Both Riseborough and Christopher Abbott (It Comes At Night) are remarkable, as their bodies and consciousness become impossibly intertwined. The supporting cast is similarly compelling, made of Sean Bean (Death Race 2), Tuppence Middleton (The Imitation Game),Rossif Sutherland (Guest of Honour), and Jennifer Jason Leigh (Existenz).
It’s a bleak vision. No one comes out of this well – particularly the viewer. Cronenberg has crafted a grim brutal thriller that almost makes the viewer complicit in the moral and physical atrocities on screen. What’s so impressive though is that it’s not one note. Its intelligent and brutal, its satirical and cynical, and the sheer magnitude of ideas and metaphors will leave you reeling. You’re going to need to see it again just to control the adrenalin so you can begin to grapple with some of the concepts.
Neither Possessor nor Antiviral could have been made at any other time. The fears and concerns are too prescient. As technology continues to develop, affecting our sense of self, family and connection, causing society to morph, distend and embrace its darker more base instincts, Cronenberg seems to be saying corporations will be there. And strangely enough we not only welcome it, but invite them in.
You can find screening locations in Australia here.