Some day, academic papers will likely be devoted to Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor. There will be those that rigorously examine the troubling implications and observations the film makes about the state of privacy in a society where technology has nearly outpaced humans. Other essays will undoubtedly dive headfirst into comparing and contrasting Cronenberg’s body horror with that of his father (unsurprisingly, an excellent 400+ page scholarly text—The Artist as Monster (William Beard)—exists concerning David Cronenberg’s own work). Hopefully, future pieces will also explore the inherent queerness of the film—among other things, its gendered/ungendered representations of penetration, both those carnal and violent. Which brings me to a single area of focus in something that is, admittedly, neither a thesis nor a dissertation: Possessor’s extreme (some might even say “prohibitive”) violence…
There is no way to properly discuss Possessor without addressing its glorious, merciless carnage, which certainly galvanizes the viewer, but not as cheap trick. The brutal assassinations carried out by Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) via brain implant technology in the bodies of unwitting hosts are essential to this world precisely because of their intimacy: Vos is always given a gun to kill, but she frequently deviates and chooses a steak knife or fire poker to slash and stab…over and over and over. It might seem gratuitous, but there is method to this supposed madness: while that repetition inevitably leads to horrific bloodletting, it also emblematizes something more significant—a correlation between violence and the rhythm of a sex act.
Beyond the obvious—the penetration of flesh—the nature of (most of) Vos’s kills are also intimate sheerly because they are one-on-one. The viewer does not bear witness to mass violence, but rather something that feels choreographed to resemble sexual intercourse between two partners. To be clear, the violence itself is not eroticized, yet neither are the actual sex scenes in the film, which are portrayed as impersonal acts—intimate, but acts nevertheless. (What one might find sexually charged is Vos’s exploration of her male host’s body and how her presence enlivens sex with his girlfriend.)
The host with whom we are concerned for the majority of the film is Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott). Without divulging too much, I’ll say that there are problems with the Vos/Tate implant, and he begins to have brief flashes of clarity wherein (often grotesque) visions of Vos herself appear. As the dyad battle for control of his brain and body, it all builds toward a climactic set piece that does not relent with respect to its symphonic use of violence. (Take note of who receives the slashings and who gets the rare bullet. These things might not hold such gravity in other films, but in one where intimacy is coupled with a particular sort of violence, I believe there is significance in the use of the blade.)
Worth noting is that any of the blood-soaked kills that comprise the tooth-pulling, eyeball-popping, throat-slitting experience of Cronenberg’s film—for me—remain a far easier, more digestible viewing than, say, the entirely blood-free assault toward the end of Emerald Fennell’s sublime Promising Young Woman. That is horrifying in an entirely different respect than the ultraviolence in Possessor because it is grounded and sobering. It feels palpably realistic.
In contrast, I believe that Brandon Cronenberg wants us to simultaneously wince at and enjoy what we’re seeing in Possessor. I would defend his uncompromising (and, thanks to the “Uncut” and compulsory edition of the film, uncompromised) use of violence because it operates on several levels, both visceral and intellectual.