I’m trying to avoid the clichés endemic to film critics when I’m talking about Andrea Riseborough, but it isn’t easy resisting the temptation to call her a “chameleon” or saying that “she disappears into her roles.” The 38-year-old native of Newcastle, England is not a raving beauty, something that she’s been able to turn in her favor, with some help from her flawless American accent. You’d have a hard time identifying her as the same actress portraying the manipulative handler in Oblivion, the lushly sexy gay hairdresser in Battle of the Sexes, the levelheaded dictator’s daughter in The Death of Stalin, or the tragically doomed metalhead illustrator in Mandy. In Possessor, she changes colors yet again as a ghostly presence whose job and its stresses have whittled her down to almost nothing. It’s one reason to see this science-fiction horror film that comes to our theaters this week.
She plays Tasya Vos, a British expat in Toronto who makes a living taking control of the minds of carefully pre-selected people to make them carry out assassinations for customers who can pay. The work has messed with her head enough that she has separated from her family because she senses that she’s a threat to them. When she does meet them, she has to rehearse the small talk she’s going to make with her family: “Hi, sweetheart, how are you? I’m absolutely starving!” She asks her boss (Jennifer Jason Leigh) for time off, but she’ll only get it after the next job. The mark is Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), a low-level data miner and reformed cocaine addict who has become engaged to his employer’s CEO’s daughter (Tuppence Middleton). The plan is for Tasya to take control of Colin and make him relapse, behave erratically, and eventually kill his fiancée and her father (Sean Bean). A malfunction with the mind-control process results in a considerably higher body count.
I’m obliged to call this film Possessor Uncut at least once here, since that is technically its title, though since we’ve never seen a cut version, I don’t know why the studio didn’t just pretend that this is the only version. We’d have gone along. This is the work of Brandon Cronenberg, the son of legendary director David Cronenberg. If that last bit leads to expect something twisted, you won’t be disappointed by this. The writer-director stages Colin’s attack on the CEO with enough blood and gore to make his old man proud. You can feel the same deadly Cronenberg chill shooting through this film, especially its retro montages as Tasya’s consciousness imperfectly melds with Colin’s. These lead to some images of great convulsive power, like one of Colin peeling off Tasya’s face and wearing it over his own. (Also among these is one of Riseborough naked with an erect penis, which I’m sure is why the film bypassed the ratings board. I’m equally sure that it’s someone’s fantasy come to life.) The plot boasts a neat twist involving Colin’s horndog co-worker (Raoul Bhaneja).
Where the movie falls short is on follow-through. We never get a reaction from the client about the job going south, and Tasya’s bringing her work home with her is something that we’re not adequately prepped for. Cronenberg also misses an opportunity to comment on Colin’s work, which is almost as invasive as Tasya’s — he hacks people’s laptops and smartphones to spy on them in their own homes — and how it might be altering his consciousness before Tasya ever gets in there. David Cronenberg made Videodrome at the same age that Brandon is now. Possessor isn’t nearly as perceptive or nightmare-inducing as that sci-fi commentary on technology and its warping effects, but there’s enough here for us to keep an eye on what else its maker might come up with.
Starring Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbott. Written and directed by Brandon Cronenberg. Not rated.