Sundance 2020: “Possessor” Is a Grab Bag of Sci-Fi Clichés


Brandon Cronenberg’s second feature is a po-faced collection of genre tropes that wastes its cast and a modest sense of style.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.)

It’s about 45 minutes into Possessor when its most apt moment comes. A bunch of generically rich people in a generically glossy mansion turn to each other and give a toast. That toast, as it so happens, is “to boredom.”

Now, while Brandon Cronenberg’s second movie in eight years isn’t a complete failure, it’s an empty one: a grab bag of sci-fi clichés with a few spurts of violence. The occasional gore gets your attention, sure, but that’s because it’s something on the screen. The production design from Rupert Lazarus does what it sets out to do, but that aim is to recreate older, better sci-fi movies. It’s just… there, and then the color palette generously shifts from pale to neon. These tricks might have an effect if they hadn’t been done so many times before.

It starts off well enough with a woman boring a metal rod into her scalp. Blood rises, squishiness ensues. Then she walks up to a man and, without precedence, stabs him to mush—until it turns out she didn’t. It’s actually Tasya (Andrea Riseborough), an employee for a Sci-Fi Movie Corporation that uses implants to control rivals’ minds. The screen turns black and, in a cool bit similar to the opening credits to Child’s Play 3, the employee’s skin turns to wax and starts to disappear. Then it’s official: Possessor has thrown its best card on the table.

Tasya’s new target is Colin (Christopher Abbott), a hotshot cocaine dealer with a whole lot of connections. But while she has a husband (Raoul Bhaneja) and a son (Gage Graham-Arbuthnot), Colin has a brother (Christopher Jacot) and father figure (Sean Bean), not to mention a sort-of love interest (Tuppence Middleton). It’s business as usual when Tasya’s boss, Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), flips the switch, but the opposites’ minds start to mesh and their lives and memories start to blend together.

It’s not an inherently flawed premise. It’s also not a new one, not at all. The issue is that Cronenberg is so intent in approaching his material without one iota of humor. He’s far too content with the lifelessness of his characters instead, rendering them as placeholders without any initial stasis and making them even more generic once they start changing. The script doesn’t even make an effort to establish Colin’s personality prior to Tasya’s possession of him, and as a result, the requisite “you’re acting differently” lines from his friends land with even less weight than expected.

[Cronenberg is] far too content with the lifelessness of his characters instead, rendering them as placeholders without any initial stasis and making them even more generic once they start changing.

If nothing else, it provides okay work for Karim Hussain to heighten the tonal shifts with his lighting. Jim Williams’s score, similarly, adds a glitchy texture—that is, when the movie uses it. Such turns Possessor into a game of trying to ignore its influences. From The Matrix to Minority Report to eXistenZ to Scanners to Fantastic Planet and hell, even stuff like The Cell, it’s a hall of mirrors that thinks it’s way more transgressive than it is. “Haven’t I seen this before?” you might ask. And the answer is, “Yes, yes you have, but here it is with a different cast. You should feel so lucky to have them here at all.”

Possessor is playing in the World Drama section of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.

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Matt Cipolla

Writer and film critic for hire who has worked with WGN Radio, Bright Wall/Dark Room, RogerEbert.com, The Film Stage, and more. Firmly believes that ".gif" is pronounced "jiff."

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