SUNDANCE’20 – ‘Possessor’ is a Beautiful, Bio-Hacking Nightmare

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Who are we if we become our jobs? This is a question asked by Brandon Cronenberg’s bloody, brutal examination on the self when our lives become entangled with our careers. In Possessor, an overworked assassin jumps from consciousness to consciousness, as technology allows her own to inhabit the bodies of would-be victims doubling as the accused. It’s a cold, calculated look at how much of our true selves we lose when we forget about our lives outside of our work, and that when our personal and professional lives fuse, it’s hard to remember where one ends and the other begins.

Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) spends the majority of her days as a bio-hacking assassin — so much so that her boss, Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) even suggests she take some time off. But Vos assures her that she’s fine, as she finishes her most recent neck-slicing, chest-stabbing of a high-profile victim, and takes only a momentary respite at the home of her recently separated husband, Michael (Rossif Sutherland) and their young son, Ira. Before she enters their home, however, she appears to recalibrate herself for human interaction, rehearsing how to say simple phrases like “Hi, darling!” and “I’m absolutely starving” in the best, most human way possible while she sucks on her vape pen. Already, Vos has lost much of her own humanity, but she passes the little tests that Girder administers her after her hit jobs have been completed, where she paws through an array of items and correctly guesses their personal connection to her. 

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

For Vos’s next job, a client wishing to be the CEO successor to a tech throne wants a three-way hit completed. A cocaine dealer who fell in love with his rich client, Ava (Tuppence Middleton), the client who happens to be the daughter of John Parse (Sean Bean), head of a high-profile data-mining company, are the three people standing in the way of someone’s rise to power. Thus, Girder’s client wants all three dead in order to take control of the business. The former-cocaine dealer, Colin (Christopher Abbott) now does grunt work at the very bottom of John’s company, but as he is John’s future son-in-law, and with a contentious relationship already sown with the family, Colin is the perfect pawn to pin it on. 

And so, Colin becomes Vos’s newest host. She observes him from afar in the days leading up to hacking his consciousness, practising his speech patterns like she practices her own. When she finally inhabits him, she admires his body like an intricately designed costume, her hands wandering around her new form, curious as to what his body has that hers does not. But from the start, there’s a compatibility issue with Colin. Girder had informed Vos before she entered his body that she can only inhabit him for three days – by then, the job must be completed (the hit planned for a lavish party hosted by John). But even prior to the three-day limit, there were signs, glitches in their synchronisation that skewed towards an incompatibility. Or, maybe, something quite the opposite. For when the time of the hit falls upon Vos that she must separate herself from Colin, it seems that the two cannot bear to be parted.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Anxieties of gender, technology, and identity are at play in Possessor, a film set in a more technologically-advanced version of our world, but which is not in the least bit unfamiliar. The most chilling dystopias are the ones which feel the closest to our current lives, the bio-hacking narrative of Possessor a reflection of how engrossed our culture is with the grind of work, and the simultaneous difficulty in maintaining our truest selves in a world obsessed with making our lives centered around our labour. It begs the question, how true to ourselves can we be if so much of our time must be devoted to that which robs us of it? Andrea Riseborough is captivating as always with what little screen time she gets, the bulk of the film given to Christopher Abbott’s pitch-perfect double portrayal not only of Colin, but of Vos masquerading as Colin. And with his multifaceted performance in another Sundance 2020 gem, Black Bear, Abbott seems only intent on impressing.

Not to mention, Possessor is a total bloodbath — far from the goriest thing to ever grace the silver screen, but a stomach-churning display of excess that will have even the most seasoned horror-watchers such as myself turning away briefly in disgust. But Possessor wants us to keep watching, and so we do. Desensitised to giving half our lives away for the money to carry on with it (Colin’s hit job a particularly lucrative one, Girder informs Vos). To exist in a world where we are constantly perceived and exploited is to constantly be at odds with ourselves, to constantly be changing ourselves; to constantly be doubting ourselves. The world of Possessor is not our own, but it is something horrifyingly similar.


Possessor premiered at Sundance Film Festival 2020 on January 25th


by Brianna Zigler

Brianna Zigler is a graduate in Film-Video and Writing from Penn State University with big plans and not a lot of planning. She loves horror, absurdism, Twin Peaks, is a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, and currently has almost 250 movies in her watchlist. Her favorite films are What We Do in the ShadowsA Serious ManLord of the Rings: The Return of the KingSwiss Army Man, and Suspiria. You can follow her on Twitter @briannazigs

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