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In Andrea Riseborough’s best screen performances — in “Nancy,” for example, and the TV series “ZeroZeroZero” — she projects a particular blend of fragility and mystery. She’s vulnerable enough to be a sympathetic character, but eerily blank enough to suggest she might, deep down, be dangerous.
Her lead performance in the science-fiction/horror hybrid “Possessor” is peak Riseborough. In writer-director Brandon Cronenberg’s violent, visionary film, she plays Tasya Vos, a ruthless assassin who works for a shadowy organization with cutting-edge murder tech, allowing her to slip into other people’s minds. She does her killing while controlling their bodies.
After a splashy opening sequence — a tense and visually dynamic depiction of one particularly bloody job — Cronenberg slows the pace of “Possessor” way down to show exactly how Tasya works. Her next assignment is to take out a powerful CEO, John Parse (Sean Bean). Her weapon of choice? Parse’s future son-in-law, Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), a miserable schlub who spends his days in a data mine, tagging images in internet videos.
Cronenberg has a lot on his mind here and tries to squeeze as much of it as he can into the picture. “Possessor” is partly about the art of performance, as Tasya — working like a Method actor — does her best not just to inhabit other humans but to understand the lives attached to them. In the process, she’s begun drifting from her own life. She’s haunted by other people’s memories and so alienated from herself that she has to rehearse what normal folks say before she returns home to her husband and son.
Like his father, David, Brandon Cronenberg is also interested in how our fundamental humanity can be changed by technology — whether it’s Tasya sneaking into other brains or Colin watching one video after another for hours. In classic Cronenberg fashion, “Possessor” develops into full-on body-horror, with characters being impaled and flayed, and Tasya at one point literally slipping into someone else’s skin. (Consider this a warning: The squeamish should stay away.)
The movie drifts a bit too far into abstraction in its final third, as Cronenberg loses interest in what had been a solidly effective corporate espionage plot and instead starts emphasizing Tasya’s weakening grip on reality. By the end, “Possessor” becomes a succession of mind-bending and stomach-turning images in which it’s hard to tell who’s really behind the eyes of the people we’re seeing on the screen, or if what they’re doing is actually happening.
But Riseborough (and Abbott, for that matter) commands attention even when the action’s confusing. Cronenberg has a lot of high-minded ideas, but he grounds them in human behavior and has found the right humans to tell his story. Amid all the severed jugulars and gouged-out eyeballs, Cronenberg can always cut to Riseborough, who looks as wounded as the twitching corpses strewn about her.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.