Blood is thicker than water and blood will out: Brandon Cronenberg turns out to be very much the filmmaking heir to his father, David Cronenberg, with “Possessor,” a deeply unnerving day-after-tomorrow thriller in which horror acquires existential overtones to go with the gore. It’s a tough-minded movie for viewers with tough stomachs, and it arrives on major on-demand platforms after a brief theatrical run.
The opening scenes alone throw us off a cliff in classic ’70s horror movie fashion: A young woman (Gabrielle Graham), hired as part of the cocktail crew for a fancy penthouse gala, strides up to a corpulent guest and butchers him with a steak knife before being shot to death by police. Her last words are “Pull me out,” and then we’re in a high-tech lab facility where Tasya (Andrea Riseborough) is coming out of a sleek futuristic contraption that has allowed her mind to inhabit and direct the killer.
Tasya is an assassin, working for a company that discreetly arranges such things for a deep-pocketed clientele. The movie’s about how her job — living inside another person’s body while preparing for the kill — has begun to have its downsides, and then some.
Riseborough (“Birdman,” “The Death of Stalin”) is a phenomenal actress, a changeling who herself seems to fully inhabit the wide variety of characters she has played in a 15-year film career. Tasya has a split personality of her own, with a loving, clueless husband (Rossif Sutherland) and smart young son (Gage Graham-Arbuthnot) at home and a demanding boss (Jennifer Jason Leigh, oozing sardonic professionalism) at work. Always a chameleon, Riseborough is thin and drawn here — a greyhound on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
After that opening has cleared the room, “Possessor” gives Tasya a new assignment: to enter the mind of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), a reformed wastrel engaged to the daughter (Tuppence Middleton) of a high-flying tech CEO (Sean Bean, of “Game of Thrones”). The CEO’s the target but he’s not the only one, and the family dynamics play a little like “Succession” with the potential for ultra-violence dialed way up.
I should hasten to add that Abbott gives a startling and complex performance himself, since the actor’s playing not just Colin but Tasya inside Colin, and an increasingly terrified Tasya at that. With its cool, composed cinematography (Karin Hussain) and an ominously simmering score by Jim Williams, “Possessor” toys with notions of identity, dominant personalities, and the hazy borders between selves, and the dread the movie is soaked in feels very much like a modern condition.
At the same time, Cronenberg sets up a vivid cinematic universe, peoples it with idiosyncratic characters, and then sets the plot machinery rolling toward a psycho-psychedelic breakdown that has seemed preordained from the start. It’s something to see even when you’re watching through your fingers, but the film’s big, beguiling ideas never get satisfyingly developed, and the ending is a shocker that doesn’t resonate very far past the end credits. Inherited or not, Cronenberg has a fine and cruel talent, but he hasn’t yet figured out where to take it. When he does, brace yourself.
Written and directed by Brandon Cronenberg. Starring Andrea Riseborough, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Christopher Abbott. Available on demand. 104 minutes. Unrated (graphic violence, nudity and sex)