Brant Lewis says Possessor is an excellent sophomore feature that explores gender through body horror.
Brandon Cronenberg made a splash with his debut feature Antiviral (2012) and has followed it with Possessor, an excellent foray into body horror that he wrote and directed. Cronenberg follows in his father’s footsteps with his exploration of bodily autonomy and gender, specifically gender dysphoria and euphoria. The film is easy to fall in love with. It crawls beneath your skin with exceptional performances, practical effects, and gore for a thrilling experience.
Taya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) works as an assassin who takes over people's bodies on her missions on behalf of her boss, Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Outside of her job, she has trouble connecting to her husband (Rossif Sutherland) and son (Gage-Graham Arbuthnot), who have no idea about her actual job. She agrees to take on another hit to kill a CEO (Sean Bean) and his daughter by possessing her fiance Colin’s (Christopher Abbott) body. However, her mission goes sideways when Colin begins to exert control, and her consciousness starts to bleed together with Colin's as each tries to establish dominance.
Bodily autonomy lies at the heart of the narrative, where agents take control of individuals' bodies to commit assassinations. Still, consent is never given by the person the body belongs to. The bodies are considered simple vehicles for Taya to hijack during her missions. Preparing the bodies involves sedating people and putting a surgically implanted device in their brains. The lack of autonomy also pops up in how Taya forces possessed bodies to commit suicide for her consciousness to return to her original body. Taya's agency sees her host as a disposable way to achieve their goals. Following the botched assassination, Colin begins to retake control of his body while fighting Taya in his mind. His body becomes a battlefield for the two consciousnesses throughout the film. Taya, like a parasite, exists as an outside force trying to control and influence his body. Thus, the themes of bodily autonomy form the backbone of Cronenberg's narrative.
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For its exploration of gender euphoria and dysphoria, Possessor may be recognized as a trans film and read as a trans allegory. Taya finds more comfort within the bodies of her hosts than in her regular life, where she feels she must put up a mask to be normal. While having sex with her husband, Taya can only picture the violence she's caused. However, while possessing Colin, she actively enjoys it. More interestingly, Cronenberg frames one moment of Taya in her body with a penis during the possession. Instead of framing it as horrific, Cronenberg makes it euphoric. Even possessing bodies blurs the gender lines because gender does not matter to Taya, only utility.
Outside of euphoria, dysphoria exists within the disconnect of consciousness and the presence of a masculine and feminine consciousness vying for control. After the failed assassination, Colin experiences Taya's memories. The aspect of an outside force like Taya disrupts Colin's life as he tries to regain control of it. He does not feel comfortable in his body and desires to find a way to rid himself of the feelings. When Taya takes control, there are moments when she blackouts while trying to piece things together. Taya experiences dysphoria following each mission. She must identify personal objects in front of Girder to ensure she recognizes herself, but Taya does not feel at home within her body.
Cronenberg’s keen penchant for surreal and horrific imagery distinguishes Possessor from other body horror films. More specifically, the narrative calls to mind nightmares and the unspoken horrors lurking in our subconscious. Cronenberg aims not to ground the world in realism but in the fantastical premise of body hijacking while demonstrating the grotesque nature, violence, and violation of the act. In one scene, Colin takes over Taya’s mind and discovers her address and family after beating her face in, and he wears it as a monstrous mask.
It might be a stretch to call Possessor an all-time horror film, but I believe it has earned that distinction. By not situating the film in the real world, the violence is much more shocking, with each act serving a narrative and thematic purpose to ground it. Cronenberg proves that he isn't simply his father, David Cronenberg's son but an exciting and creative filmmaker in his own right.
Possessor is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.