'Possessor' | Sundance Film Festival
'Possessor' | Sundance Film Festival

Body-Swapping Science Fiction Thriller 'Possessor' Wants to Blow Your Mind

When the corporate assassins in Brandon Cronenberg's studiously gnarly science-fiction thriller Possessor want to escape a dicey situation, they make a simple request to their handlers: "Pull me out." It's that classic phrase used by spies in espionage nail-biters when their cover gets blown, a more elegant and cool-sounding version of just screaming "get me out of here now." Depending on your tolerance for stomach-churning violence, chin-stroking metaphysics, and body-swapping intrigue, Possessor, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival over the weekend, could have you mumbling "pull me out" as you sprint for the exits. It's that type of movie.

But if you're on Cronenberg's often pulpy, occasionally ponderous wavelength, Possessor will be appointment viewing -- as long as it can find a distributor willing to put it out in its current fucked-up form. For his follow-up to 2012's Antiviral, the son of body horror legend David Cronenberg imagines an alternate reality where technology has advanced to the point that it allows skilled professionals to hack into the bodies and minds of targeted individuals, turning them into unwilling and unknowing executioners. More efficient than Manchurian Candidate-style brainwashing, the procedure lets would-be CEOs eliminate their rivals while keeping their hands clean. 

Tasya Vos (Mandy's Andrea Riseborough) is the most gifted consciousness-thieving killer in her field. Working with Jennifer Jason Leigh's therapist-like supervisor, Tasya opens the movie by carrying out a vicious (and very, very bloody) stabbing at a swanky, light-strewn Toronto restaurant. She wakes up reeling from the attack, her mind fraying and splitting in subtle ways. But after a tense visit to her husband and child, she's onto the next assignment, a complicated mission that requires her to control the body of the boyfriend (Christopher Abbott) of the daughter of a powerful tech executive (Sean Bean). No time off for brain-swapping murderers.

Christopher Abbott in 'Possessor' | Sundance Film Festival

Sitting in the driver's seat of Colin's brain, Tasya has three days to take out Bean's jerky Jeff Bezos-like figure. Colin goes to work at his future father-in-law's company, where he spends his days wearing goofy-looking goggles and identifying types of curtains while peering through the cameras on personal computing devices. (Cronenberg's script possesses flashes of dry humor that help break the often dour mood.) He goes home, where he vapes, listens to Orville Peck, snorts coke, and has sex with his girlfriend, who can tell there's something off about him. He's not acting like himself. "You've gone strange on me," she says. 

Though the movie is packed with jargon, there's a refreshing simplicity to Possessor's premise. It could be the set-up for a Hollywood-produced Jet Li movie from 2005. Instead of choreographed fight scenes and shoot-outs, the slick action that powers a more conventional mind-bender like Christopher Nolan's Inception, Cronenberg packs his movie with psychedelic detours, hallucinatory montages, graphic sex scenes, and bursts of gruesome carnage. In one dreamlike sequence, Abbott smushes Riseborough's head and puts on her face like a crumpled Halloween mask. Again, it's that type of movie. 

Like with many sci-fi art movies, the storytelling can get needlessly obtuse. A little confusion comes with the territory, especially when attempting to dramatize the slipperiness of identity and explore the limits of consciousness, but Possessor feels like someone used a jagged knife to remove scenes that a more conventional thriller would provide. The psychological motivations don't always scan; people who you think might be important to the plot end up disappearing from the movie. The narrative operates on its own splintered stoner logic. 

In David Cronenberg's '80s horror classic Videodrome, Professor Brian O'Blivion, the Marshall McLuhan-like media theorist, muses that "the television screen is the retina of the mind's eye." Possessor envisions a familiar dystopian world where screens are so plentiful, so mundane that they no longer even register as potential threats. The mind's eye can be tampered with, manipulated, and hijacked for the right price. As a puzzling genre provocation, the younger Cronenberg's film might not be the new flesh you're looking for. But Possessor, rife with haunting images and weary performances, does an effective job of wearing the skin of its midnight movie forebears.

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.