What does it take to earn the accolade of “most fucked-up film at Sundance 2020?”
That’s the (unofficial) badge of honor “Possessor” wears. The Sundance representative introducing the film at the screening acknowledged that “mindfuck” is an overused descriptor for psychological films, but promised this was a movie worthy of the word.
The premise surely lends itself to a mindfuck. Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough, “The Grudge”) is an assassin who uses brain-implant technology to take over a host body, controlling it to kill targets for high-paying clients. The story revolves around a flashy murder mission: the assassination of a high-profile CEO — fittingly played by Sean Bean (“Drone”) who is notorious for dying violently in all his roles — committed by the hostbody of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott, “It Comes At Night”), the target’s daughter’s boyfriend.
Implied to have numerous successful assassinations under her belt, Tasya’s mind is breaking under the trauma of so many killings and body takeovers. Everything unravels as she inhabits Colin’s body. Abbott carries most of the film’s weight. Playing Tasya-controlling-Colin is a very specific character to capture, especially considering the movie gives no indication of Colin’s personality until Tasya has already taken over. It’s obvious in the way Abbot’s vaguely detached on-screen energy resembles Riseborough’s performance from the beginning of the film. Colin’s girlfriend Ava (Tuppence Middleton, “Downton Abbey”) often notes that he’s acting funny, but that’s not the main indicator that something’s off. It’s the dissonance between Abbott portraying Tasya’s detachment and all the hints of the real Colin’s wild lifestyle: sleeping with the CEO’s daughter in her swanky apartment, drinking and drug-doing with his friends, messing around with another girl on the side.
While “Possessor” has the potential to dive deep into a world in which remote body-control assassinations are possible, it rejects this direction and instead devotes itself to the exhibition of a psychological breakdown. Tasya’s assassination mission and its worldly consequences are unimportant; her psychosis is, and so is the internal battle of will between her and Colin over control of his body.
If “Possessor” had focused on a grander world and story in which brain-implant assassination is just a novelty mechanism to drive the plot, it would probably be an irrelevant, purposeless film. But the movie isn’t about telling a story, or even sharing a higher message. It’s a film about literally getting into people’s heads, and it’s hell-bent on getting into its viewers’ heads too. To that end it is gruesome, gory, unsettling and unforgiving. Oftentimes when depicting something violent or graphic in a movie, the viewer can have faith that the most uncomfortable moments will be kept offscreen. “Possessor” takes that expectation, builds on it until you’re fully confident they wouldn’t actually show that, then skewers it with a fire iron.
I didn’t walk out of the theater after “Possessor” feeling changed. I didn’t develop a nuanced understanding of a subject, I didn’t grow attached to the characters, I wasn’t inspired to tears or compelled to take action. None of that. I just felt mindfucked. I don’t cope well with body horror, and I nearly walked out three times. In fact, the director, Brandon Cronenberg (“Antiviral”) is the son of acclaimed director and body horror pioneer David Cronenberg. There’s surely lots of intentional symbolism and underlying meaning to dig out of multiple rewatches. But I’m not interested in digging. I will be leaving my experience of watching “Possessor” with my time at Sundance.