The name Cronenberg is associated with two things when it comes to cinema: visceral, grotesque body horror and whip-smart social commentary. As the undisputed hero of the Canadian movie industry, David Cronenberg has crafted classic after classic for the best part of 50 years, and now his son, Brandon, is attempting to step up to the plate. His 2012 debut Antiviral was a clear nod to his father, dealing in disease, twisted medicine and obsession with celebrities. For his second feature, Possessor, he's doing something entirely different – but no less effective.
It's as much a sci-fi thriller as it is a horror movie, set in a world in which assassins have the ability to possess other bodies in order to gain access to their victims. One such killer is Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), who has been tasked by boss Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) with taking down business mogul John Parse (Sean Bean) and his heiress daughter Ava (Tuppence Middleton). In order to do so, she occupies the body of Ava's partner Colin (Christopher Abbott), but it quickly becomes apparent that she's not quite in complete control.
Interestingly, Possessor rather eschews the family business in several ways – its body horror elements are occasional rather than structural and, in terms of thematic subtext, it's fairly lacking. However, it is a smart, slick thriller with the tone of an oppressive, psychedelic nightmare. Cinematographer Karim Hussain frequently bathes scenes in blinding neon light, which gives the whole thing the unsettling feel of a 1990s techno-thriller, assisted by a strange, ethereal score from Jim Williams. These unique visual choices come to the fore, particularly, in a bizarre sex scene that features unflattering glowing light, bodily changes and the rare cinematic spectacle of an erection – albeit not attached to someone you'd expect.
Much like Antiviral, there's a prickly, imperfect tone to Possessor which ensures the audience is always off-balance. It's on the one hand a very modern, near-future sci-fi that plays on concerns about technological surveillance – Colin works for a data mining company, watching people through webcams – but, on the other, it feels like a movie caught in a time warp from the past of paranoid thrillers of the pre-Millennium era. This tension between style and substance doesn't always work but, when it does, it's compelling in its spiky dissonance.
Though Riseborough has been promoted as the movie's lead, she spends much of the story in the skin of Abbott's character and so it falls to him to shoulder the more complex, dramatic sequences. His performance is one of delightful uncertainty, with neither Colin nor Vos fully in control of the body they're both inhabiting. Catch-22 and Girls star Abbott rises to the challenge with a complex performance as a man filled with fear and distrust of his own mind. Meanwhile, the likes of Bean and Middleton maximise their minutes with memorable supporting turns.
But this is a movie from the Cronenberg clan and so there will, inevitably, be blood. The violence in Possessor is sudden and horrifying, with the filmmaker dialling up the brutality as Vos battles to assert her control over Colin's body. In one unforgettable sequence, this battle manifests via the medium of manual eyeball-scooping so prolonged it would make even The Mountain from Game of Thrones wince. By the time the ending arrives, Cronenberg finds an extra gear of blood-drenched bleakness to conjure yet another narrative surprise.
This is an accomplished sophomore feature for Cronenberg, which marks a definite step up from the promising foundations he laid with Antiviral. Its ambition occasionally overtakes its execution and there's an uneven feel to the way it delivers its slightly muted message about surveillance society and relinquishing control to technology. However, there's no denying the style and excitement that keeps the movie rolling, even when the storytelling flags. This might not be the younger Cronenberg's masterpiece, but it feels like a sure-fire sign he has one in him.