Of every genre filmmaker from the past fifty years, David Cronenberg perhaps requires the least introduction. When his son, Brandon, first entered the filmmaking scene, dangerous expectation inevitably followed, and those expectations clearly weighed him down in his 2012 feature film debut, Antiviral. Those criticisms that Brandon faced in the years since seem to have fueled him for his latest film, Possessor, but while it’s undeniably packed with some incredible visual elements, the plot itself struggles to keep up with the visionary concept the director was going for.
Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) struggles with her job, which sees her use advanced technology to inhabit a target’s brain for the objectives of the massive corporation. Although she clearly is the top employee at the firm, she finds herself beginning to lose herself in her work — becoming stuck inside of one target, a businessman named Colin (Christopher Abbott). Cronenberg hinges the film’s brilliant visuals on Vos’s experiences while she is inside the mind of Colin, and much of the film’s relative success is placed on the shoulders of Riseborough’s brilliant performance.
As Vos begins to lose herself within the mind of Colin, the film becomes a beautiful collection of imagery, but its plot becomes muddied in the process. The practical effects are dazzling, and there certainly hasn’t been a film in recent memory which implements this strong sense of visual style to the level Cronenberg does here. Much like Vos in controlling Colin’s brain, though, his vision of the film as a whole feels ultimately beyond his reach — just out of grasp. Inadvertently, Possessor‘s shortcomings mirror its own themes of losing oneself within someone else, as Cronenberg loses his true vision within the gorgeous details of his film.
That being said, Cronenberg does have success in tapping into an existential fear found within everyone: hosting two different desires within oneself. He thrusts this universal fear into 21st century America — envisioning a massive corporate entity which capitalizes on brain invasion for monetary gains, a not-so-far-fetched assertion that sees American companies assassinate rivals for profit at the expense of its employees’ mental health. Capitalism continues to corrupt the elite of the United States as the gap between the working class and the rich widens each day.
Thus, while there are strands of competence in Cronenberg’s film, his lack of directorial experience (and apparent self-awareness) seems to have led to one of Sundance’s most problematic scenes this year. In the first scene of the film, Vos inhabits the body of a Black woman to carry out a mission, and there ensues a tasteless confrontation between her and some white cops. In what could easily be given as a commentary on how white elites use Black bodies as pawns in their pursuit of wealth, Cronenberg’s intention is lost completely in clunky handling of a scene that might otherwise have had value — leaving us to wonder what its exact purpose is. While it does set up the concept utilized throughout the rest of the film, its ultimate execution is certainly mishandled.
In spite of this botched opening, Possessor does finally cement Cronenberg as having escaped his father’s shadow — a claim that cannot be made about his feature debut. He has assuredly found his voice as a filmmaker and, as he matures, we should hope that he handles problematic scenes with more grace as seen in this sophomore film.