Possessor is a primal scream from a techno void in which an operative can invade the mind of another person via a brain-synching device, turning the host into a deadly assassin. Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is one such agent, whose current contract is to eliminate the head a mega data-mining organisation by possessing the fiancé of the CEO’s daughter, Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott).
It’s the kind of high concept sci-fi/horror that could spring from the mind of a Cronenberg – in this case Brandon Cronenberg, who announced himself as an exciting new genre filmmaker with his 2012 debut feature Antiviral. And while he won’t be drawn on whether or not he’s influenced by his famous father David’s films – “I don’t have that kind of perspective on myself or on his films; I don’t watch them the way other people watch them” – it’s clear that father are son are operating on a similar wavelength.
Cronenberg tells STACK that the idea for Possessor sprang from a fairly trivial and personal place.
“I was on the press tour for Antiviral, and when you travel around with a film for the first time it’s a very strange experience. You’re building this public persona as you’re talking to people, performing a kind of media version of yourself that creates a double of you that exists, weirdly, on the internet without your input after that.
“I was feeling at the time – because of that and other reasons – that I was having difficulty seeing myself in my own life. I was getting up in the morning and feeling like I was in someone else’s life, like I had to scramble to construct some kind of character that could operate in that context.
“So I wanted to initially make a film about a character who may or may not be an imposter in their own life, as a way of talking about how we build characters and narratives to operate. So the seed of the film was really in those more dramatic scenes – the relationship and family scenes. The sci-fi thriller elements came after that as I was developing it.”
As well as melding minds, Possessor also skilfully merges the performances of its impressive leads, Riseborough and Abbott.
“I think the greatest compliment to Chris’s performance came in a test screening, where somebody wrote, ‘I really liked Andrea’s performance when she was Chris,” laughs Cronenberg. “Initially I thought maybe we needed some rigid framework to work through those performances. Did one of them want to follow the other one, did one of them want to take the lead and the other mimic, or did they want to be on set for each other’s scenes? But in practice it was this organic, collaborative thing. I had some ideas about how the performances could overlap, and they came to me with some ideas of their own. I understand they were checking in with each other while we were shooting to make sure they were both on the same page. But they’re such fantastic professionals, so they didn’t need me to trick them into it or play games with them.”
A thematically rich film, Possessor explores issues of identity, gender, technology and the insidious reach of the internet – the latter amusingly conveyed through Colin’s job, which involves hijacking webcams to conduct voyeuristic market research.
“It’s an exaggeration of essentially what Google and some of those other companies do,” Cronenberg explains. “The level of privacy invasion for market research is absolutely extreme, but it’s also for this completely mundane reason, which is to sell you things. So I just like the idea that there’s somebody in this world watching you have sex but they’re only interested in what kind of curtains you have,” he laughs.
Saturated with surreal imagery depicting the duality of its characters as they mentally struggle against each other, Cronenberg reveals that Possessor’s striking visual effects were all achieved in-camera.
“All the hallucination sequences were one hundred per cent practical, in collaboration with Karim Hussain, my cinematographer. We worked for many years on the various camera effects – the distorting of the images and the way we could use flares and lenses and gels and video feedback to create some of that hallucinatory imagery. And then Dan Martin, our effects artist, made the melting body parts for instance, which were also practical.
It’s also one of the goriest films you’ll see this year, and Cronenberg is quick to justify pushing the bloodshed to the extreme.
“I thought the violence in Possessor was incredibly narrative. So much of Vos’s character is defined by her relationship with violence and her relationship with these experiences, so I really felt that for the audience to really understand her, they needed to have this kind of visceral response to those experiences to understand in a graphic way what she was going through.
“And also, her psychology tracks with the depictions of violence throughout the film, so sometimes it’s more observational and brutal, and then looking back on it, it takes on this kind of beautiful, almost fetishistic quality in her mind, and so you have to be able to play with the images that way, which I felt was so important to the character’s psychology.
Ultimately, Possessor is a genuinely disturbing and disorienting experience with a loaded narrative guaranteed to spark much discussion thereafter, and Cronenberg is content to let audiences draw their own conclusions.
“Although I had very specific ideas about the characters, the narrative and the various metaphors as I was making it, I also intended it to be left open to a certain degree for audiences to interpret it on their own, and leave some room for audience creativity. I like the kind of filmmaking that does that and is open in that way to some degree.”