Possessor (2020)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Hitman: Agent 47 (2015)

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three star

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Just as I found myself oddly won over by the generic action movie cheapness of 2007’s video game adaptation Hitman, I was equally tickled with its seven years late sequel. Almost more of a reboot than a proper sequential follow-up, Htman: Agent 47 makes no perceptible reference to the first Hitman film either in its narrative or in its much more stylish visual palette of crisp white walls & television static blues. The first Hitman film was amusing in its lack of its ambition or specificity. It kept its superhuman assassin protagonist’s origins vague, attributing his existence to some blanket collective called The Organization, a super-secret conglomerate with “ties to every government”. As a follow-up, Hitman: Agent 47 seemingly tries to correct the perceived wrongs of the past, bending over backwards to nail down the details of its titular assassin’s origins & to please the action movie marks in the audience with its ludicrous CGI spectacle. Struggle as it might for legitimacy, it’s just as much of a cheap action movie romp as the first film, just with a bigger budget as well as more of a willingness to go big & go silly. As with the first go-round, it kinda works.

Choosing to go the dreaded Origin Story route, Hitman: Agent 47 explains that The Organization’s assassin farm where they raised, balded, and barcoded trained killers has been shut down for moral grounds, even though the assassins are still assigned missions, presumably also by the very same Organization. Or maybe it was The Organization’s evil twin company Syndicate International that ran the assassin farm. The details are a little fuzzy, but I do know that Syndicate International is supposed to be bad & they’re looking to start creating “Agents” again, which is also supposed to be very, very bad. But, don’t worry, our titular killing machine assassin, simply named 47, is very, very good. Along with the daughter of the scientist who spearheaded the Agents program, 47 looks to put a stop to Syndicate International’s evil plan to reinstate a program that “engineered human beings by selecting & enhancing certain genes” & “eliminating” weaknesses like pain & love. Along the way, 47 helps release the methodical murderer inside of his newfound Scientist’s Daughter partner & also battles a seemingly invincible Zachary Quinto (who you can tell is bad news from the get go, thanks to his diabolical eyebrows), playing a kind of Wolverine knock-off who has been, I swear to God, reinforced with “subdermal titanium body armor” that makes him impervious to stab wounds & bullets. When that bit of silliness is first revealed, even Quinto has to call for a time out and ask, “Pretty crazy, huh?”

You know what? Forget everything I just told you, because absolutely none of it matters. Hitman: Agent 47 survives solely on the strength of its ludicrous action sequences, which are admittedly a half step above the adequate proceedings of the 2007 original. Sure, 47 falls back on the mechanical choreography of the first film where he calmly spins in circles and shoots a slew of targets (mostly faceless baddies not even worthy of his glance) one at a time, never missing. That aspect hasn’t changed much (despite 47 been switched out for a second bald-headed actor for unexplained reasons between films), but it has been enhanced by an even sillier set of action movie stunts. Characters bounce off the top of a speeding train without wincing, then duck under the next one as it passes, safely nestled between the tracks. The Agent-in-training Scientist’s Daughter is tested for her survival skills by being tied up in front of a running jet engine to see how quickly she can Houdini herself to safety. Later, a few faceless goons are thrown into the engine just for a sense of completion. 47 also beats down some goons with a hotel Bible & crashes a helicopter into an office building without starting a fire, the blades still spinning long after they’ve collided with desks, walls, and ceilings. Each action set piece is more laughably preposterous than the last, like something you’d expect in, say, a video game. By the time Agent 47 & Scientist’s Daughter are killing in unison to a surf rock soundtrack in a moment of borrowed Tarantino cool, the film has pretty much exhausted every possible way it could acheive a cheap action movie dreck aesthetic (complete with the CGI-aided POV of a flying bullet straight out of that one KoRn video). Enjoying the film for the trashy fluff that it is will depend on your personal mileage for those kinds of shenanigans. I found myself a little dumbstruck, but thoroughly amused.

Bonus points: As I mentioned with the first film, I think one of the more unique aspects of this franchise is that it sticks to the lead’s asexuality as a central character trait. Lesser action movie fare certainly would’ve abandoned that peculiarity in favor of a romance plot. It was a detail tested a lot more strongly in the first film considering that 47’s female sidekick was a runaway sex worker instead of the sequel’s choice to negate the issue by giving its central pair a familial tie (Her Scientist Dad is basically his dad too? In a weird way?), but it’s still a striking choice for a franchise so generic & so silly in almost every other way.

-Brandon Ledet