The most often repeated observation about actor Andrea Riseborough is that she loses herself in roles to the point of being unrecognizable. Among other examples, Riseborough’s turns as the titular metalhead loner in Mandy, the titular grifter in Nancy, and the daughter of the titular dictator in The Death of Stalin are all so distinctly unique in both performance and physicality that it might not even occur to you that the same actor was cast across the roles. That chameleonic quality might be frustrating for Riseborough’s professional need for name recognition, but it is fascinating to watch in terms of pure excellence in craft. It’s also, I assume, a major factor in why she was cast as the lead of Brandon Cronenberg’s latest feature, Possessor, which seemingly took note of her absence of persona and built an entire fucked up sci-fi horror around it about the loss of Identity. A damn good one too.
Riseborough stars as a near-future corporate assassin who hacks into unsuspecting marks’ bodies to pin her public executions on them, avoiding arrest and collecting massive bounties. We catch up with the assassin one too many missions into this grotesque routine, losing her grip on her own persona as the borders blur between her host bodies and her original self. Much of the film involves an especially disastrous mission where she cannot escape the host body she intends to assassinate a Jeff Bezos-type Big-Tech Asshole with, trapped inside his dirtbag son-in-law and becoming increasingly violent the longer she loses herself in the role. The two dueling personae inside that one shared meatbag start to fight for control in increasingly upsetting ways, represented onscreen through surrealistic melting wax figures & video art freak-outs. It’s a fight between actors Riseborough & host-body Christopher Abbott to take over as protagonist just as much as it is a fight between assassin & unsuspecting scapegoat. Both performers are spectacularly upsetting as they squirm uncomfortably inside their own warring bodies, but it’s a struggle that speaks directly to Riseborough’s reputation as a chameleonic actor in particular.
Brandon Cronenberg does little to avoid the inevitable comparisons to his father’s previous triumphs here. As the assassin’s bloodlust for grotesque, pointless cruelty escalates, the film’s genre shifts from pure sci-fi thriller to outright surrealist body horror in the Cronenberg family tradition. Casting Jennifer Jason Leigh as the assassin’s handler and using plug & play brain ports as the company’s means to hack into host bodies at least serve as direct acknowledgements of this cinematic inheritance, directly referencing the iconography of eXistenZ in particular. There’s plenty of modernization & innovation at play here that elevates Possessor above mere tracing-paper ditto work, though. The horrors of the Jeff Bezos-funded surveillance state that completely obliterates the boundaries of privacy & autonomy to the point of hacking into our goddamn bodies feels distinctly of-the-moment and a worthy application of the body horror tropes that David Cronenberg helped pioneer. There’s so much about Possessor that’s unique to our current, nightmarishly inane hellscape, including casual use of the term “cuck queen” and non-stop onscreen vaping. It’s indebted to body horror classics of the past, but not at all tangled up in attempts to recreate them.
It’d be outrageous to claim that Possessor is about Andrea Riseborough’s eerie absence of a solid persona. On a conceptual level, this is clearly a film that’s most interested in the identity & autonomy we’ve all given up in our march towards a corporate data-mining hell future. Casting Riseborough in that central role of a professional impersonator who can’t hold onto her original persona as she loses herself in her assignments can’t help but feel like a deliberate, knowing choice, though. It builds off her established reputation as an actor in fascinating, terrifying ways, which adds additional depth to the bodily & technophobic grotesqueries that drive the plot otherwise.