Making an exceptional film is one thing, confirming your talent with an equally impressive successor is exceedingly rare. Brandon Cronenberg took 8 years to land Possessor, his second feature film, so expectations were quite high. Would he be able to top Antiviral? Would he be able to distance himself from his father's work? Could he establish a signature style with just two films behind his name? Many questions, much pressure. The response to Possessor has been overwhelmingly positive though, so I was excited to find out if it was really worth the hype.
Being the son of famed director David Cronenberg invariably comes with expectations, especially when you dabble in the same genres and niches your dad helped shape. Brandon Cronenberg certainly didn't take the easy road, as he faced these expectations head on. His films blend sci-fi, body horror and thriller elements (which should sound very familiar to people who have kept track of David's oeuvre), but do so with a bit more stylistic finesse. This more prominent attention to atmosphere is what draws me to the work of Brandon, and with Possessor he made clear progression.
The Possessor universe is an odd one. It features clear sci-fi elements, but the film itself doesn't look particularly futuristic. Brandon's vision is one that places retro sci-fi elements in a contemporary setting and thrives on the odd tension it creates. The centerpiece of Possessor is a machine that allows a person to invade other people's minds, a stylish-looking contraption that is heavily fetishized throughout the film. Brandon doesn't really bother explaining his universe either. We are shown certain things and are challenged to come up with interpretations and conclusions ourselves, which can be a little disorienting.
Tasya is a skilled contract killer. She has been trained to invade people's minds, carry out the assassinations and return to her body by forcing her hosts to commit suicide. Detaching from a host becomes increasingly difficult with each new kill, which is why she needs to undergo a rigorous psychological evaluation after each assignment. Though she can fool the tests, she starts to notice that her mind is slipping. When she's assigned a crucial case she accepts without hesitation, but once she's inside her new host she fails to get him under control. What follows is a battle between two minds over one single body.
Antiviral was a very bleak-looking film, Possessor is quite the opposite. Cronenberg explicitly chases color, though in line with his first film he does seem to prefer monochromatic visuals. There are no real explosions of color, not even bold two-color contrasts, just scenes shot in very dominant primary colors. It's quite the spectacle really, combined with the exquisite camera work and some razor-sharp editing Cronenberg already has his visual signature coined. It works wonders for this kind of film and it's one of the points where he clearly outdoes his dad.
The soundtrack is good, but it's probably the one element where Cronenberg still has the most potential to improve. It's a really solid, atmospheric score that goes very well with the visuals and does its share to establish the overall mood, so no complaints there. On the other hand, the dark, droney sounds are quite expected and the score as such isn't really that memorable. It integrates very well with the rest of the film, but never really finds an opportunity to jump out and make an impression for itself. It's a minor thing, but it could push his films to even greater heights.
Star of the film is no doubt Andrea Riseborough, putting in a very icy and detached performance. It's certainly not the most loveable character she had to play, not the most emotive either, even so her performance makes it easy to care and sympathize with her character. Christopher Abbott does a pretty solid job too in what is a particularly difficult role (as he needs to take over Riseborough's part in quite a few scenes). Good secondary performances from Jennifer Jason Leigh and Sean Bean make sure that there are no obvious weak links, rounding off an overall impressive cast.
Though many of the plot's specifics may be left to the imagination, Cronenberg's a lot clearer when it comes to the theme of the film. Possessor surely isn't the first to question the nature of our self by separating mind from body. Its technology allows people to invade the minds of others, though they can't stay there for too long as they will begin to lose touch with their old self. Cronenberg doesn't cover too much new ground and for a large part it's really just a plot device, but it's executed with plenty of creativity and such attention to detail that it really didn't bother me at all.
Possessor has that mix of genre and auteur that I love so much. The story may be familiar territory for most, but the exquisite designs, the stylish cinematography, great score and excellent performances make this a film like no other. As long as Brandon Cronenberg keeps dabbling in the body horror niche and keeps combining it with sci-fi elements, he won't be able to escape comparisons with his father's work, but if he keeps delivering quality films as he has, that's not really going to be a problem. Possessor is the confirmation many have been waiting for. Brandon Cronenberg is here to stay.