‘Possessor’ Sundance Movie Review: ‘Avatar’ By Way of ‘A History of Violence’

James Cameron has left Avatar fans hanging for 10 years, and it’s still going to be Dec. 17, 2021 before Avatar 2 comes out. Young Avatar fans have become adults in that time, so now they’re old enough to see a more grown-up exploration of using avatars. Possessor is like Avatar by way of A History of Violence

Andrea Riseborough | Karim Hussain/Sundance Institute

Hopefully writer/director Brandon Cronenberg doesn’t mind the reference to his father’s movie. Possessor is plenty original as it dabbles in familiar elements in new and unique ways. 

‘Possessor’ respects the viewer’s intelligence

Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is an assassin but her method is the stuff of Philip K. Dick. Through a technology, she can possess another body to commit the murder. The body she uses doesn’t make it out of the mission either, but once the job is done it doesn’t really matter to Tasya. 

Possessor just drops the viewer right into Tasya’s world and then into her mission with little explanation. However, this is 2020 and moviegoers ought to be familiar with concepts like The Matrix, Ready Player One or Avatar. Whether you’re plugged into a cyber world or a real-world body, it’s part of our world now. People do it on social media every day.

Avatar goes low-tech in Possessor
Andrea Riseborough | Karim Hussain/Sundance Institute

There’s a protocol that’s been a well-oiled machine for some time, so they don’t have to explain how it works. Tasya wouldn’t explain her job at this point. The viewer gets the sense from these veteran possessors that this is a believable operation. You see the toll it takes on their bodies and minds too, including Tasya’s boss Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh). 

It’s also remarkable that Riseborough essentially shares her character with other actors but the film never loses track of Tasya. It’s always her, no matter who she’s possessing. 

‘Possessor’ gets deep

Then there are levels within levels of virtual reality. So Tasya possesses Colin (Christopher Abbott). She drops into his life and the people around Colin don’t bring her up to speed because they think this is just the Colin they’ve always known. The audience has to catch up with Tasya. 

Christopher Abbott in Possessor
Christopher Abbott | Karim Hussain/Sundance Institute

Colin happens to work in a virtual reality job too. So within her possession, Tasya has to figure out Colin’s job too to maintain her cover. It’s complicated, but sophisticated viewers can keep up, or at least fake it as much as Tasya fakes it to get by. 

Virtual reality stories like The Matrix, Total Recall or Inception always ask provocative questions whether their apparatus is cyber, memory or dreams. The question becomes: what is reality really? Possessor takes that to a harrowing level because Tasya is possessing people in the same world, not entering a new world in a computer or within herself. By the end, realities blur but you can follow it all as one linear story.

All bloody hell breaks loose

There is action and violence in Possessor but it is intentionally not a big scale action movie like most of the Hollywood movies that explore virtual reality premises. Killing is Tasya’s line of work and every killing is excessively graphic for effect, just like A History of Violence was. It’s exciting but not glamorizing it. 

Possessor | Karim Hussain/Sundance Institute

Possessor opens with a very bloody killing to establish Tasya’s world. That’s only the appetizer though. By the time she reaches the climax of her mission as Colin, she finds all sorts of new ways to kill. 

Possessor can afford to be edgier than the Hollywood version of a technological thriller because it doesn’t have to answer to the four quadrants. For fans of cyber/identity sci-fi looking for something much harder-edged that really goes there, Possessor will be worth waiting for after its Sundance premiere.