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A figure wearing a ghoulish mask of a woman’s face in Possessor, in front of a bright red backdrop.

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Possessor is one of the most artful, colossally effed-up horror movies in forever

A bloody good Sundance premiere from Brandon Cronenberg

Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

This review was originally published in conjunction with the premiere of Possessor at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. It has been updated and republished in conjunction with the film’s release in theaters.

Logline: An assassin who hacks and takes over people’s bodies to complete her assignments finds herself trapped in a man unwilling to go down without a fight.

Longerline: Possessor stars Andrea Riseborough as Tasya Vos, a mother of a young boy, a wife separated from her husband, and a for-hire killer who can download her consciousness into targets’ brains in order to covertly enact bloody murder in the name of corporate interests. She has ... a lot on her mind.

Exiting and re-entering her brain strains Tasya’s psyche, but her boss (Jennifer Jason Leigh) insists on one more urgent job: the triple murder of a high-profile CEO, his daughter, and Colin (Christopher Abbott), the daughter‘a boyfriend, who will be Tasya’s vehicle for all three homicides. The diligent assassin accepts, and after kidnapping Colin and injecting a cyberpunky implant into his skull, she’s off to the murderous races.

Tasya’s eroded mind leaves Colin with the wiggle room he needs to maintain a semblance of control. What follows is a botched operation, to put it in spoiler-free terms, and a violent identity crisis.

The quote that says it all: [Blood-spurting sound of cleaver repeatedly hacking into a human torso.]

tasya sits in a brain hacking machine in possessor Photo: Courtesy of Sundance

What’s it trying to do? With Possessor, Brandon Cronenberg (Antiviral) grabs the body-horror baton from his father, Videodrome director David Cronenberg, and rams it into the audience’s collective eye. The movie is relentless and artful exploitation, less concerned with blunt messaging than blunt-force trauma. There’s loads of literal gore — every stabbing in Possessor goes about 28 stabs longer than your typical slasher would stab — and the abstract battle staged in Colin’s mind. Sequences in which Colin grapples Tasya on the metaphysical plane blend the retro surrealism of movies like Mandy with monstrous prosthetics and liquifying visual effects.

Possessor strings together its gory sequences with a spy-movie pace. Cronenberg’s approach to exposition is basically the anti-Inception, leaving the rules and character dimension unspoken in order to cut straight to the terror. Confusion is part of the equation, mirroring the blurry double vision of Tasya and Colin’s shared perspective, but the director never loses his grip of what the audience actually needs to know to understand the physical turmoil of each character.

Does it get there? Possessor works because there’s more than blood pumping through its veins. The movie as agency and technological servitude on its mind, with Tasya’s assassination work mirroring Colin’s day job as a data tracker who taps consumer webcams to log to log home furnishing items and track buying habits. Every person in this dystopian future is having their strings pulled by an invisible other. Cronenberg makes his hard sci-fi point in gruesome fashion.

Tasya (Andrea Riseborough) bathed in red light in Possessor Photo: Courtesy of Sundance

The extreme violence, which Cronenberg often shoots with close-ups that will tickle special-effect makeup geeks, ultimately bolsters the bigger picture. Tasya is being pushed to the brink to get the job done, and at the cost of her synapses. Colin, though driven by another person, has blood on his hands, and becomes unique kind of noir sleuth in the process. Anything can happen, and everything does happen. From the conjured hell emerge two discordant, human performances out of Riseborough and Abbott.

What does that get us? A wildly entertaining movie that’ll probably wind up with an NC-17 rating. Despite the taboo honor, Possessor also has the right balance of world-building and ambiguity to be a conversation starter. Family plays a key role in Tasya’s strange career choice, and the influence of corporate forces becomes a central sticking point as the movie drills down toward a conclusion. Themes of gender, class, and economic warfare are all on the table. But horror is the clear priority for Cronenberg, and by god, the flesh wounds are jaw-dropping. Maybe even jaw-removing?

The most meme-able moment: Can people post disembodied fingers on Tumblr without getting banned?

When can we see it? Possessor is now out in theaters and drive-ins.