To thine own self be true...
Tonight was the last night of the online BFI UK film festival for me. I had spent this week watching films from the comforts of my couch, catching Cicada, Rose: A Love Story and Bad Tales. Brandon Cronenberg's latest, Possessor, marked the end of the festival for and left it on a very high note.
I was a big fan of Brandon's original feature, Antiviral. There was something of the sterile environments, surreal story and graphic body horror that is a staple of the Chronenbergs that drew me to the film. I also thought the concept of celebrity viruses was genius. I still think it's an underrated gem and not on enough people's favourite horror lists.
Antiviral was a film from 2012 though, so I was curious whether in eight years the offering would be as strong. I am still getting used to the very long development cycles of most films so it wasn't a deal breaker, but I was curious what his latest would look like. I knew that this would be another venture into one my favourite sub-genres, body horror, but often that can lead a director to push through films that fit the bill (body horror, shockingly painful six or vfx and a hopeless situation) with no real innovation or progression of the genre.
In the same light what always attracts me to the Chronenbergs' films is the way Dsvid, and now his son Brandon, are able to make you feel unconformable in your own skin just by watching their films so I knew it was worth the price of entry in any event. I kept getting contact headaches just watching the action on this one!
Suffice to say the film delivers and then some. The body horror element is just as it should be for a Chronenberg film. I think where this film excels in is in it's contrasting environments. Brandon uses many wide shots framed against long corridors or placed in front a grand building to showcase its features and space. There is even a scene where the camera follows along pointing upward to capture the magnificence of the high ceilings of an opulent residence.
Contrast this with some of the most visceral violence I have seen in horror film this year. Needles stuck in heads, multiple "bashing" scenes (that have become almost too common in indie horror now - where a body is beaten to a point of disfigurement), children with multiple bullets exploding out of them and a fire poker that gets an extra workout in someone's face.
What I love about this film, and it was a feature of Brandon's first as well, is how sterile and benign most things are presented in the film. This high contrast, hard whites, crushing the blacks style that also takes away some of the soft whites, creates a type of visual that always reminds me of hospitals. However, Brandon maintains a cinema feel (where some Japanese body horror actually dial in a resolution/picture that is more reminiscent of TV and even more realistic (FYI the Japanese Guinea Pig films are fake Charlie Sheen, but we get how you were confused).
I like the balance between ultra-realistic presentation of violence and dealing back the realism for the amazing locations where the film takes place. This film embraces it's violence, but does not define the entire story by it, which has been a winning formula for indie horror since the mumblecore days of Ti West, but is not really starting to take root with directors like Ari Aster who write combination films (horror/break-up, horror/family loss) with a far bigger emphasis on the second story element than was previously common in the genre. Violence, opulence, infidelity and drug use all take a back seat to the Inception-style exploration of self.
I am sucker for a horror movie with a great story, especially layered ones. The story in Possessor, for me, was such a great exploration what things make up our perception of self. Brandon also gives multiple perspectives on this examination by brilliantly reversing our perspective from the progragonist to her target and back. Similar to the tragic outcomes at the end of A Serbian Film, the finale and reveals to the audience did genuinely come out of the blue but then are quickly explained. It's really nice to see a writer that can keep the audience guessing without adopting a strategy of just constantly handing out red herrings and hoping they come back for the next mystery (Lost I am definitely looking in your direction).
Is there a larger commentary on self-identity in this film? I am not sure if I am honest. There are definitely themes, but what Brandon Cronenberg gets right that so many do not is the core story which helps drive the viewer through to the end rather forcing them to listen to a long exposition piece on what it all means. I always find such conclusions are better left with the viewer to discover. Leave a trail of breadcrumbs if you wish, but let the audience come to their own conclusions! No issues with that in Possessor as the assassin main story always takes us from scene to scene. We have a protagonists, she has a mission (or a series of missions) and one of those missions does not go as planned. The story has been told a million times and we know people like it, so it is about modernising the tale and adding new points for audience consideration. Brandon Cronenberg does that in spades, letting you focus on his visual style which pushes and pulls you, making you gasp at the beauty of the opulence of the world the assassin inhabits but gasp at the brutality of the violence committed by the people in that world.
Director to Director
Within my circle of indie filmmakers I constantly seek feedback on my films to see what worked and what didn't work. As a developing filmmaker I also think having a critical eye of other's work helps develop one's own style. There - that's the disclaimer. I loved this film, but never watch anything without think about a couple of things that could have been better. I present them here as something to think about for the next film (which I am sure with how good this one is there will be people lining up to help Brandon make).
With Possessor, I felt immersed for the first 2/3rds of this film, but started to wander towards the middle of the third act. The ending brings it back again, but I felt the lull was unnecessary. Brandon's films do not usually have a great deal of score of soundtrack - it adds the the dry and minimalist style that let's the focus remain on the the poignant acts of violence and underlying malaise that helps the skin crawl effect throughout the film, but made some scenes crawl to a stop for me.
As such, if it were me I would have cut about 20-30min out the film (I know, I know - I always say that). It would not have been an easy cut as I think you might lose some of the key exposition in doing so, but I am always a fan of driving the action rather than explaining to people what is really going on.
The other point I would make is that as much as I LOVE the aesthetic and am amazed how Brandon Cronenberg's visual style is in some ways just like his father's and in many ways completely different. However, the style visually of this film seems almost too close to Antiviral to me, accenting the dystopian malaise similar to the Handmaid's Tail although decidedly brighter (which was a nice addition). I want to see more films from Brandon, but I wouldn't mind something completely different for the third film with a new style and theme with the same ultra-crisp story and layered visuals to keep the audience guessing.
A must see this year for horror, especially if you are a body horror fan. If not, do not fear, this film is not gore porn by any means, but the violence is dramatic, visceral and poignant. Similar to discussions LVP have previously had on things like the Nightingale which has some brutally realistic and awful scenes, but not to the point of being excessive. Don't watch at dinner time or before a trip to the doctor's and you should be alright.
Go out and see this film when you can as it innovates horror in new directions and opens doors for future explorations into self-self-identity. It also marks the second great film by Brandon Cronenberg. Know Thyself!
by Jason Cherot - 23:42 Friday 16th October 2020