Tag Archives: Brandon Cronenberg

CAPSULE: POSSESSOR (2020)

AKA Possessor Uncut

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , ,

PLOT: In the near future, secret elite assassins carry out their work by possessing the bodies of innocent parties through a neural implant; Taysa, a top Possessor, has trouble on her latest assignment when the subject proves capable of sporadically suppressing her control.

Still from Possessor (2020)

COMMENTS: “This film has not been modified from its original version” is an odd notice to see on a movie in its first run. Releasing Possessor as Possessor Uncut is meant to play on the fact that Brandon Cronenberg’s second feature was refused an “R” rating, and the director declined to make the cuts (involving both sex and violence) required for the “restricted” rating. Thirty years ago that would have been a big deal, meaning no advertising in newspapers and boycotts by mainstream theaters (and Blockbuster Video). Nowadays, unrated movies—especially provocative art-house pictures and sordid genre films (Possessor fits both categories)—get theatrical releases all the time with little hoo-ha. Still, after watching a possessed hostess plunge and twist a knife repeatedly into her privileged white male target in Possessor‘s opening sequence, you will understand why they are making a big deal out of the “uncut” nature of this project. Possessor‘s violence is graphic, well-done, and fits the film’s disturbingly sociopathic tone.

Specifics of the technology that allows Possessor‘s assassins to ply their gruesome trade are left largely to our imagination. Some details are plot-important, however: possessors are psychologically tested to make sure their individual memories remain intact after a job, and technicians warn that it’s safe to inhabit the host bodies for only about 72 hours. Storywise, there is actually not a lot to follow: top hitwoman Taysa Vos (Risenborough, looking like she’s inhabiting the body of a young ) is feeling the stress of her lifestyle, spontaneously recalling scenes from her work life as she’s trying to re-establish her bond with her estranged husband and son. Her chillingly businesslike boss (Jason Leigh) calls her in for a lucrative job that involves possessing a man to murder his CEO father-in-law-to be as part of an extremely hostile takeover scheme. Things go badly, naturally, as Taysa finds that her neural connection with target Colin (Abbot) isn’t as steadfast as usual. The subject regains some measure of free will, complicating the job.

Like his father, Cronenberg fils knows when to ratchet up the unease with subtle touches (an establishing shot of skyscraper slowly spinning along the frame’s axis) and when to unleash the hounds. One of the odd features of this film is that our putative protagonist is, by necessity, off screen for most of the action. Her psychological motivations are equally absent; we don’t get any overt explanation as to why she does what she does, what makes her good at it, and why she’s willing to risk her family—and her sanity—for her distasteful job. This blankness makes her seem all the more of a monster, a perfect psychological parasite. The trippy sequences where she and her target battle for control of the body’s will feature images of molded mannequin heads melting and reassembling, and of Risenborough trapped in an ill-fitting mask. The imagery suggests not so much a Persona-styled existential crisis as it does a metaphor for a character battling for her own humanity. While not as aggressively weird as his unsettling debut film Antiviral (no celebrity steaks on offer here), Possessor is dark in the best/worst way, and will satisfy your desire for soul-freezing chills.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This Cronenberg’s work is just as odd, bloody and twisted as that of his old man, but he’s not imitating the twistedness… whatever else it is, ‘Possessor’ feels authentically weird.”–Mick La Salle, San Francisco Chronicle (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: ANTIVIRAL (2012)

DIRECTED BY: Brandon Cronenberg

FEATURING: , Joe Pingue,

PLOT: Syd is in the business of supplying fans who pay good money to be infected with a herpes simplex virus extracted from their favorite celebrities, but when he samples the blood of the world’s hottest model, he unwittingly injects himself with a fatal virus.

Still from Antiviral (2012)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Doomed protagonists peering into mysteries they’d be better off not finding the answers to, painful hallucinatory bodily transformations, beautiful women with hidden gynecological deformities: Anitviral‘s got that genuine Cronenberg phenotype. Brandon, the son of , ensures the family’s weird gene will live on.

COMMENTS: Antiviral is simultaneously science fiction, a satire of contemporary celebrity culture, a psychological thriller, and a body-horror fever dream. Trying to juggle that many balls takes the kind of hubris that only a first-time director can summon. Antiviral is generally up to the task, although it does start to drag as it runs its course; but its strange concepts and its chilly style should be enough to keep you hooked to the end. Antiviral imagines a world of the near future where celebrity obsession has become literally pathological: people pay top dollar to achieve “biological communion” with beautiful people by being infected with their personal diseases. This highly profitable market naturally invites corruption, including viral piracy by unscrupulous bug mules willing to serve as human incubators. To protect their intellectual property, pathogen peddlers have derived a bizarre copyrighting system that somehow uses facial imagining technology to give unique, distorted human features to each individual virus. The pop-microbe trade isn’t even the sickest way this society exploits susperstars’ cell structure; I won’t spoil that nauseating revelation. Caleb Landry Jones plays Syd, a top Lucas Corporation viral technician who’s wan-looking even when he’s healthy; he has few facial expressions, but seems like he was cast for his sickliness. On the other end of the spectrum is luminous Sarah Gadon (who, with roles in A Dangerous Method, Cosmopolis and now this is fast becoming the Cronenbergs’ go-to actress), the “more than perfect, more than human” supermodel whose cold sores are the Lucas Corporation’s top sellers. When Syd inadvertently contracts a fatal infection—one which, thankfully for the audience, includes inducing traumatic Cronenbergian hallucinations as a major side-effect—the race is on to find an antidote. The young viral entrepreneur will find out how deep the underground bio-celebrity trade goes, and how far the pathologists who work there are willing to go to keep their business model healthy. The future created in Antiviral is eerie and repellant. Like one of the movie’s copyrightable virus visages, which look like smartphone snapshots that have been run through a cheap face warping app, the culture here is distorted but recognizable. Cronenberg’s constant white-on-white color scheme can be heavy handed at times, but it generally reinforces the movie’s tone: artificial, otherworldly, and coldly antiseptic. While Antiviral runs out of steam before it reaches classic status, there are moments in the film that will make you both physically and morally ill. As a debut, it’s a promising start. Another generation of Cronenbergs is a savory prospect, and while not quite a masterpiece, Antiviral is a promising indicator of unsettling things to come from Brandon.

Antiviral‘s central premise—that people would willingly infect themselves with the flu, or herpes, just so they could feel closer to beautiful strangers—is too absurd to be believed, a satirical exaggeration. Then again, within our society exists the rare but real subculture of bugchasers. God help us.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If weirdness was all that mattered… ‘Antiviral’ would be a must-see.”–Matt Pais, Redeye (contemporaneous)