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New Flesh for Old

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Sean possessor featured

In the second part of a two-part series, Sean Alexander explores the films of Brandon Cronenberg and the return of Jewish Body Horror.

*Warning: this review contains spoilers

Brandon Cronenberg’s second film, Possessor (2020), echoes much of the corporate themes of its predecessor, this time positing a technology that allows the cerebral transference of ‘agents’ into predetermined subjects in order to complete assassination hits on high-profile targets.  Our protagonist Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) enters the minds of these subjects through an immersive VR helmet that bears more than a passing resemblance to the ski-boot that contained Allegra Geller’s game pod in his father’s film Existenz (1999).

Likewise, the presence of Jennifer Jason Leigh in the role of Vos’ boss, Girder, also recalls Existenz’s leading lady.  We start with Vos carrying out her latest hit on a lawyer (in the body of a corporate waitress), choosing the stab him to death multiple times instead of using the supplied firearm, before being gunned down by attending police. Vos’ exit from the VR device is subsequently violent and visceral (agents are usually ‘pulled out’ by means of placing a gun in their own mouths) before being debriefed by Girder. This entails reimprinting the agent’s own identity by familiar objects and memories (a necessary aid to post-hit recovery given that the immersivity of this technology can easily lead to personality disintegration and an inability to divorce the real world from avatars). 

Vos visits her estranged husband, Michael (Rossif Sutherland) and son Ira (Gage Graham-Arbuthnot), and later the couple make love despite Vos’ inability to ignore visions of her brutal assassination hit earlier in the film.

Vos is then offered a very lucrative job posing as the would-be son-in-law, Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), of a powerful businessman, John Parse (Sean Bean), with instructions to cause a public scene at a family get-together before returning later to execute his target. Clearly, Vos is troubled by her initial impressions of being inside the body of Colin, especially when he and his girlfriend Ava Parse (Tuppence Middleton) make love before attending her father’s gathering. 

Parse senior reveals himself to be a brutal and uncaring businessman and father, estranged from both his wife and daughter and offering Colin a menial job in a VR business sourcing new household effects for unbeknownst customers. Vos is freaked out by this experience of being in another virtual realm when already operating within the avatar of Tate, creating a growing schism between Tate the host and Vos the controller. Provoking the scene as instructed, Tate later returns to Parse’s mansion where he brutally attacks the businessman with a poker before shooting his daughter Ava in the back. 

As with the opening assassination, Cronenberg Jnr pulls few visceral punches in scenes of multiple lacerations followed by both mouth and eye-gouging (we later learn that Parse somehow survives this onslaught). Tate flees to the apartment of a friend and occasional lover, Rita (Tilo Horn), where he is subsequently contacted by Eddie (Raoul Bhaneja) who attempts to release Vos from inside the Tate host. He is killed by Tate, as is Rita before Tate uses his symbiotic link with Vos to visit her son Ira and husband Michael. 

Michael is killed by Tate before Tate himself is killed by Ira (who we discover is in fact Vos’ boss, Girder, herself using Vos’s son as a host to enter her employee’s trapped reality and pull Vos out.  The film ends with Vos now seemingly back in harness as a sleeper agent for the corporation run by Girder, with little or no remorse about the deaths of either husband Michael or son Ira.

Possessor is a far more engaging film than his first film, Antiviral, not least for Andrea Riseborough’s tortured turn as Vos, a woman whose job has led to her decreasing ability to relate to a real-life of domesticity and parenthood. In a Jewish sense, the film recalls ideas of Jews hiding in plain sight, not to mention the correlation between Jews and spying in such archetypes as Reilly Ace of Spies (TV, 1983) and the James Bond canon of novels and films (1962 onwards). 

Like Syd March in Antiviral, Riseborough’s Vos is pale, sickly and detached from the real world around her, increasingly unable to separate the life she has from the work she does. The subsequent battle for both her body and her soul with Colin relates to Jews’ struggles to represent their identity in ethnic, cultural and political terms (one is reminded of how Jews were often required to adopt less Jewish, more goyish identities in order to blend in with society at large). Their use as disposable drones with little or no autonomy is itself comparable to Vos’s own employment as an unwilling (if unable to escape) agent for the unnamed corporation headed by Girder.  Elsewhere, Sean Bean’s millionaire John Parse is a cold and failed father figure for both daughter Ava and wannabe son-in-law Colin Tate. He is surrounded by wealth and luxury, but ultimately alone and bereft of emotional connection to both Ava and her estranged mother living in Dubai. Even Parse’s partial blinding in Tate’s brutal attack is coded as being some biblical punishment for his hitherto failings as both father and authority figure.

Where Possessor shares its most significant genetic links is with David Cronenberg’s Existenz, a similar tale of virtual nested realities and fake avatars being adopted for political and assassination gains. Given Antiviral’s similar heritage of Cronenberg’s early period of disease, contagion and capitalisation thereof, clearly son Brandon is attempting to not only carry the torch of his father’s most formative themes but also forge his own vision in a world of mass media control and social media obfuscation. 

Where he goes next is currently unknown, but with father Cronenberg seemingly content with pursuing a late-life career in films and TV in front of the camera (last year’s cameos in Star Trek Discovery being of particular curious note), the opportunity for son Brandon to forge his own path would seem not only possible but extremely anticipated given these opening salvos.

All photos by Rhombus Media

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Sean Alexander is a PhD Candidate at Bangor University, exploring Jewishness and Judaism in the films of David Cronenberg.
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