Doing a routine search on Possessor will show you the conflicting reception movies tend to receive occasionally; the movie has had an overwhelmingly positive reception from critics and middling reviews from fans. Possessor deserves this split; this isn’t a case of critics wanting something that the movie does not want to be or fans “not getting it”. It is a movie that feels like it is not compromising on any level and is exactly as weird, abstract, and disturbing as it wants to be. I usually like these movies a lot, but Possessor is just one of those cases where I have to cop out; I don’t love this movie and I don’t think it is in any way, shape, or form, bad either. I think it is a good movie with lots of interesting and stylish visuals, great performances, and an evocative method to storytelling that doesn’t pay off in the end.
Written and directed by Brandon Cronenberg, Possessor stars Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and follows Tasya Vos, an elite, corporate assassin who uses brain implants to take over other people’s bodies to execute high-profile targets. It’s a simple premise that allows the movie to explore more complicated themes around identity and the reasons why humans do what they do, but most importantly, it allows Cronenberg and Karim Hussain (cinematographer) to flex their creative muscles when it comes to creating striking and violently gorgeous imagery that burns itself in your mind. Seeing the Cronenberg name, one would assume that the gore and practical effects are plentiful and well done – and you would be correct because they are – however, I am a sucker for colorful presentations that border on unpleasant to create a neon aesthetic and Possessor is one of the best implementations of that I’ve seen so far. It’s also a movie that relishes the opportunities it has to be weird and creative with simple touches like housing complexes that are symmetrical or a particularly impressive representation of what it feels like for Vos to take over someone’s body.
These touches make the movie entertaining in what the eye sees, but the actors demand as much attention as the impressive visuals. In particular, Riseborough is brilliant once again in an indie horror flick (like in Mandy from 2018) even though she has so much more to do in this movie, but rarely misses a beat. She has this mysterious aura that makes you constantly wander what her true nature is and what she actually wants to happen, how sane she is, and what truly drive her. Christopher Abbott and Leigh also get plenty of screen time (as well as some other actors that I won’t spoil their involvement because they were a nice surprise for me) and are pretty good; all of the characters in the movie seem to have less energy than you would expect from these situations and that sometimes hurts their believability, but I enjoyed the creepiness that created and the moments of eruption that would have been less impactful had they not been as muted.
The reason why I am not as impressed as others seem to be about Possessor is simply because I don’t think it has a particularly good reason to be a horror flick; I think this is one of those cases where a sci-fi thriller was a better option rather than trying to go full horror. I love the atmosphere and the creepiness of the movie, but when it comes to actual scares or creating a sense of dread or even making the audience think about something truly horrific and mess with their heads, Possessor falls short. The movie’s plot is too abstract and weird for me to latch on to something and if it had more traditional scares, it would have ruined the good parts of what works about the movie’s writing; that’s not to say that there is nothing to value here for horror fans. Vos’s relationship with her family and her work is something that truly spoke to me and made me think about that theme in ways only horror movies can achieve, but at the same time, that can be messy and does not integrate with all the other levels the movie is trying to operate on; furthermore, that does not take into account all the other themes the movie is going for or the audience can read into since the movie’s ambiguity allows and encourages them to do so.
Overall, I think Possessor is a good movie, especially considering this is Brandon Cronenberg’s second feature film. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, but the way it chose to tell its story simply left me not as interested as I wished it would have with its strong beginning, its great performances, and fantastic visual style. This is one of those movies that would have benefited especially from a movie theater, where the big screen makes the style pop out and the big speakers help the audience get immersed in the world, and is one of those movies where I would love it if it got an actual run in theaters and maybe there I will grow to love it.