David Cronenberg remains one of Hollywood’s most prolific masters of cinematic violence of the last half century. His entire body of work, including films like The Fly, Videodrone, Scanners and Naked Lunch, consists of films driven by body horror, gore and the horror of the desecration of the human body and mind. It’s no surprise then that his son would follow in his footsteps!
Brandon Cronenburg’s sophomore effort, following his obscure 2012 horror film AntiViral, became one of 2020’s minor success stories and one of the more historically notable horror films of the last few years. Although, that’s not necessarily because the film stands up for itself by its own strengths. There are a lot of expectations that come with the Cronenberg name after all…
Possessor is a definitely a film that feels like it’s trying to recapture lightning in the bottle. At a glance, it’s an artist trying to mimic the style and aesthetic of his father but the subtext actually does give it more weight than a film like this might otherwise have.
The story follows a woman named Tasya Vos. She’s a sort of assassin working for an unnamed agency that specializes in transplanting (possessing) the minds of individuals with specially trained agents who are trained to imitate their targets, frame their targets for murder and then return to their bodies. Much of the nature of these character’s work is left unstated. Tasya seems to live a fairly normal life but the emotional exhaustion of her work seems to have somewhat hallowed out of emotions to the point where she has to train herself to act like herself once she returns to her body.
As we see, the process of possessing is a taxing one. The individual undergoes a torturous process where their being and identity melt away and inhabit the body of another. The longer Tasya is in the bodies of her targets, the more damage she does to her own brain.
Again, it’s a fairly derivative movie. There are elements of high concept thrillers like Inception baked in the premise and yet it’s central influence is clearly Brandon’s father. That similarity ultimately feeds into the film’s central motif. Possessor is a film about the nature of imitation. It’s a story about the process of walking in another person’s shoes and the incredibly taxing ways in which that process destroys individuality. More importantly, it’s a story about the horror of individuality giving way to another person’s identity.
Brandon is clearly trying to walk in the shoes of his father before him. As an artist, that must be anxiety inducing. He’s a young man who wants to create a voice and name for himself and yet he’s carrying the expectations of the Cronenberg name on his shoulders.
We see this reflected in the film in the way Tosya begins to slowly lose herself to the possession. Early in the film, she starts noticing strange “artifacting” during the film’s second possession and it quickly becomes clear that her grasp on reality is shaken. Her reality starts becoming haunted by strange glowing white objects the appear and disappear like eye floaters.
As the possession continues, she starts seeing images of her body wearing a mask of herself. She begins to lose the ability to maintain control of the body she’s possessing and she loses the ability to return to her original body. Even when she’s around her family at the beginning of the film, her identity is already something she’s deeply and tenuously lost to. She has to sit outside her front door rehearsing behaviors that would make her seem normal to her family.
Her own identity has become just another one of her masks and the real her is nothing but a bloody husk she lives and works in. The tragedy of the story comes in the reality that what little of her identity she had left is ultimately destroyed by her actions during the film’s plot.
Just as David Cronenberg evoked the horrors of identity loss and physical degenerations in his films, Brandon Cronenberg evokes the horrors of having to be an artist creating another artist’s work. I can’t say for sure that the film is an autobiographical story about a son grappling with the frustration of living in another artist’s shadow but the subtext for that read is definitely there. This is a story about losing one’s self to their work. I can’t help but feel that such a story is very personal to him.