Possessor (2020)

I don’t do this too often, but before I sat down to summarize my thoughts on Possessor, I looked at a bunch of reviews, specifically in search of people who saw this movie from an angle similar to mine. And I have to say that – bar one or two isolated examples where someone briefly mentioned what I think is the main thesis of this film – mostly everyone was busy looking for other things. 

It turns out that Brandon Cronenberg’s sophomore directorial outing is most often reviewed in the context of his father’s legacy, as it is clearly embedded in the realm of visceral body horror spiked with a dose of heavy-handed social commentary. This isn’t necessarily wrong. I do believe that Possessor carries in its genetic makeup some elements harking back to Scanners or Existenz and that Cronenberg truly attempts to be – perhaps unwittingly to an extent – a torchbearer for his father’s legacy. Therefore, it is ultimately very easy to gravitate towards that kind of rationalization when thinking about this film. It is without a doubt a brutal and gory affair. Its story is competently nested within an interesting high concept that ultimately gives the film an allure of a post-modernist satire that – much like Videodrome did nearly four decades back – reflects our societal flaws back at us through the prism of ultra-violent and gross visuals, and a thoroughly phantasmagorical atmosphere.  

Sadly, this is where the discussion mostly ends. Granted, the discussion of what identity is in these trying times is worth having and the film seems as though it wanted to instigate it in some guise, but – as one of my friends put in his review – it looks as though Possessor had too much and too little to say all at the same time, which is both jarring and correct. And I believe this might be because the layer of social commentary embedded in the film is of secondary importance to the filmmaker. It is nothing more than a point of interest for the film to casually comment on the way corporations manipulate our behaviour with online advertising, or how our own perception of ourselves is intricately tied to the images we project online. Equally, one can find thematic threads relating to online identity theft, catfishing and the ramifications of letting your own identity merge with the avatars we assume when interacting with other people on social media. And it is absolutely correct to see this long laundry list of themes and ideas as potentially burdensome because the film as a whole never truly commits to exploring either of them in more detail. They all seem to be surface-level buzzwords and loosely hanging ideas. And if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…  

I guess what I am trying to articulate is that the reason Possessor looks like a bit of a kitchen sink of inch-deep social commentary is that its interests are only partially there. Quite frankly, I am willing to extend the courtesy of believing that if Brandon Cronenberg truly wanted to make a movie about these issues, he would have explored them more deeply; he’s not an idiot. Instead, what I think this film is about relates more closely to the main character’s circumstance and her entire dramatic arc. In the film we meet Vos (Andrea Riseborough) as a veteran assassin and the most commonly encountered description of her journey as a character relates to how she is perceived to be burned out by her job. She’s emotionally detached, her family life suffers, she barely remembers facts about her own private life, such as the fact she is separated from her husband. Granted, the plot of the film hinges on the crucial moment where she fails to execute her job properly and lets her mind be subdued by the host she was supposed to inhabit, which then triggers what arguably is the crux of the entire narrative. However, her motivations are seldom taken into account, even though they are right there on display.  

I believe that Vos isn’t simply burned out by the demands placed upon her by the over-bearing employer. This may be seen as a tad provocative but I think the reason why Vos is misinterpreted as a character has to do with viewers inadvertently projecting a certain set of gender expectations upon her. She is a woman therefore she must be family-oriented, right? She must miss her son. She must yearn to re-kindle her relationship with her husband… But that’s not the case, is it? 

You could argue, quite successfully, that her job is what alienates her from her family. But I think it is perhaps incorrect to assume she is unhappy about that. In fact, she feels more in her element when she is performing professionally than when she is with her own son. This is quite literally expressed early on in the film when we see her rehearse things she would say to him, much in the same way she rehearses when learning to impersonate her prospective hosts. The persona of a mother and a wife is just another mask for her to put on. This is where most other viewers seem to conclude that her profession is the culprit and that deep down, she probably wants to have a normal life. I beg to differ. I think Vos is actually concerned that her family is what prevents her from achieving professional success. She is burdened by the fact she has other people she has to focus a portion of her attention on (and gets her into trouble eventually), which is exactly what many extremely successful professionals experience as well. But they are almost always men. They are absentee dads who work 120-hour weeks, forget their kids’ birthdays and barely pay attention to their partners. All they do is provide luxurious living conditions with their impressive salaries but they are abhorrent as fathers and husbands. Vos is basically a female avatar for that kind of hyper-industrious sociopathic behaviour.  

What I think adds an interesting wrinkle to this angle of analysis is a possibility the film may be more personal to Cronenberg than meets the eye. After all, his own father is also an extremely successful professional and it wouldn’t be completely off-base to think that maybe he was an absentee dad as well. Maybe young Brandon didn’t get to see his father in his formative years because he was always away, either physically shooting films, or mentally locked away in his office writing scripts and obsessing over his many artistic projects. Maybe – just maybe – Possessor is a subtly personal commentary on growing up with a hyper-successful father? Maybe through the character of Vos the filmmaker vents his own pent-up frustrations? We will likely never know. However, what I think I do know is that the general commentary on the sub-strata of people who would stop at nothing to achieve professional success is the main thesis of the film, regardless of its potential personal connection to the filmmaker.  

Unfortunately, most of the discourse surrounding this film stops well short of discussing this angle, which may be a product of the film obscuring it with the little nuggets of immediately accessible commentary that most viewers would latch onto with more ease. Admittedly, it’s way easier to see Possessor as a thematic progeny of Videodrome and Existenz and pore over its aesthetic connective tissue tethering Brandon Cronenberg to his father’s legacy. But if you scratch a bit harder, I think you’ll find a more interesting discussion hidden somewhere in this film, though I lament the fact I had to do this much scratching to get there in the first place.  

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