Brandon Cronenberg is no stranger to a bloody mess.
As the director of Antiviral and son of one of the pioneers of body horror films, Cronenberg is more than comfortable wading through rivers of blood in order to investigate deeper ideas about the human experience. As visceral as it is mesmerizing, Cronenberg’s latest film, Possessor, is another violent exploration of mankind’s psychology that isn’t afraid to attack the senses.
From a purely sensory perspective, the film’s violence—while graphic—looks great onscreen and a key part of that process is the cocktail used to depict the film’s blood. While Cronenberg isn’t sure what made up the mixture specifically, he appreciates the amazing work done by his visual effects team.
“The blood was spectacular and I can’t tell you too much about it because it was actually a secret recipe,” he beams. “I don’t know what it was. We had this fantastic effects artists, Dan Martin, and he’s responsible for so much of the wonderful practical trickery. He had some contacts who had this incredible formula for this very advanced kind of fake blood, which looks amazing. It actually coagulates like real blood and then washes off anything incredibly easily… I don’t even know if he knows what’s in it because it’s someone’s secret formula.”
More importantly, however, Possessor is yet another complex mindtrip from the young filmmaker that uses sci-fi elements to challenge our ideas about who we are. Written and directed by Cronenberg, Possessor follows Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), a corporate assassin who allows her consciousness downloaded into the minds of others so that can commit murders for the benefit of the company. Tasya has a special gift for her craft. However, with each host that she inhabits, Tasya becomes increasingly broken by her experiences, leading to violent memories and urges that she must suppress in her ‘real’ life. When she accepts a mission to kill the head of a major corporation (Sean Bean), her host Colin (Christopher Abbott) begins to fight back against his unknown mental assailant, causing Tasya to lose control and potentially remain trapped in a prison of his consciousness.
Using Tasya as a key example, Possessor highlights our struggle to know who we are in an age where the nature of identity is increasingly difficult to pin down. Though his characters slip in and out of the bodies of others, Cronenberg believes that, ultimately, our identity cannot be separated from our physical selves.
“I don’t really think there’s a difference between mind and body,” he explains. “I think it’s all the same. I think the mind is really a process of the brain and you can’t really disconnect the two. Even though in the film, it plays it a little bit like that through the science fiction because she’s, in a sense, inhabiting other people’s bodies remotely, that’s more of a metaphorical thing to discuss identity. In reality, I don’t think those can be really separated.”
Cronenberg goes on to explain that he believes that most people are simply presenting themselves for the benefit of others, rather than honestly depicting their true self.
“Ultimately, I don’t really think we have a true self…,” he points out. “I think it’s all to a certain degree performance. Sometimes we’re performing for other people, sometimes we’re performing for ourselves. So definitely there is an interesting–and I would say common–experience of being in a particular situation or trying to accomplish something and not being able to see yourself in it somehow because it’s at odds with your identity, whether it’s imposter syndrome or it’s just that disconnect between our own self-image and how other people see us.”
One of the more fascinating aspects of Possessor is its willingness to engage the notion of personal responsibility. While characters commit acts of violence, they are certainly not of their own free will but they must still face the consequences. With this in mind, Cronenberg says that he believes the notion of culpability is far more complicated than we like to think.
“One of the things that I keep coming back to what I’m writing… is the process by which we construct a sense of unified self, despite the fact that that doesn’t really exist,” he contends. “I think a human being is a chorus of conflicting impulses and ideas and emotions. Some of those come from our own brains, some of them don’t. There’s a very interesting science being done examining, for instance, human microbiomes and how other microorganisms in our digestive tract or parasites can affect our personality and affect our behaviors. Of course, in a more figurative sense, there’s the question of maybe what you could call psychological infections, how we pick up ideas from other people and claim them for ourselves. That’s especially interesting and kind of terrifying right now, [especially] when you look at what’s happening on social media and, for instance, foreign states meddling in the US elections. We are, in a sense, hackable now because we’re so completely online, but I don’t think we really yet understand what human society is becoming because of that. A lot of people believe that they have certain ideas that they’ve generated themselves, but they’re actually being manipulated in fairly nuanced ways online.”
As a result of his research, Cronenberg also discovered some fascinating studies into brain functions and how they drive our actions and responses.
“I did some research into the neuroscience behind brain control,” he continues. “One of the things that I found was a Spanish doctor named Jose Delgado [who] had done some experiments in the United States involving brain implants in animals and human beings. There is a scene in the film where a kind of documentary plays on the television. There’s this bull fight and the bull has been implanted with this receiver. That’s actually footage from one of his experiments… The spot in the brain that he put this wire was stimulating different areas of the brain electrically and, because of where that wire was, the subject was acting in response to the stimulation but then claiming those actions for themselves. So, for instance, every time the experimenter pressed the button, the subject would get up from his chair, walk in a circle and then sit back down again. But every time he did that, he would insist that he had done it of his own free will. He [thought that] he was just looking for shoes or that he had heard a noise somewhere and was going to investigate. So, I think there’s a very interesting process of the brain by which we, in a sense, determine after the fact whether an idea or an action was generated internally. I think has fascinating scientific and philosophical implications.“
Given Possessor’s narrative complexity, Cronenberg enjoys the fact that there are any number of readings to the film’s meaning. One such alternative view is that the film’s subtext is that Tasya’s violent nature suggests an inner tension as she attempts to balance her career and family. To Cronenberg, this aspect of her character speaks primarily about the disconnect between her more animal impulses and the expectations of her domestic life.
“To me, the career aspect of it is maybe a part of a broader struggle that we have again with how internally we see ourselves, but also, on a certain level, we’re all apes living these animal lives but in this strange civilization that we’ve built for ourselves. So, I think who we are internally is very chaotic and animal and then who we are as a result of civilized society is somehow very restrained. I feel like there’s often a disconnect between what’s expected of us and this kind of inner turmoil that we deal with. That’s certainly true in the professional sense… I wanted to comment to some degree on how all of us are dealing with that specific. In Tasya’s case, [it’s] a very pronounced disconnect because she has this sense of violence in her and these impulses which are still at odds with what’s expected of her in this civilized domestic setting. In many ways, that is more horrific to her than the violence.”
Violence is key within Possessor, not only because of its graphic visuals but also because it becomes an external representation of the inner turmoil that Tasya’s character experiences throughout the film.
“Her relationship with violence is very much at the heart of her character so the violence in the film is really very much narrative. I felt it had to be a visceral,” notes Cronenberg. “People had to feel on a sort of almost bodily level what she was experiencing emotionally and it also tracks what’s her psychology. So, sometimes you’re seeing it from a more observational perspective and then looking back on it and it’s this more sort of stylized, almost fetishistic thing, for her. I don’t want to go too far in analyzing the characters because… the narrative arc [was] designed to leave a little space for various interpretations from the audience… but certainly I was thinking of her in some sense like one of those drone pilots who experiences PTSD because of the violence that they’re engaged in even though they’re engaged in it remotely. Yet at the same time, there’s something in her character that’s very much drawn to it. I think it’s a bit of a question whether that’s something inherent to her or whether that’s something that’s being planted in her character by her mentor figure and by the corporation.”
Possessor is now playing in theatres.