SFX|Holiday Special 2020

CAN YOU REPEAT THAT AGAIN?” asks Brandon Cronenberg, on the line to SFX from his home city of Toronto. He’s all apologies, clearly squirming as he requests a third stab at the same question. “I’m sorry. There’s this intense static that coming through.

“Maybe we’re being hacked,” he laughs, through the curse of crackle. “Maybe they don’t want this information out there…”

It feels entirely appropriate that technology is against us today. Cronenberg’s new movie, Possessor, is a tech-driven fantasy, blurring the boundaries of horror and thriller just as the identities of its protagonists shift and melt to disturbing effect. In this story the self is a brittle, untrustworthy thing and, as the writer-director tells it, that’s a premise rooted in his own lived experience.

“I was on the press tour for my first feature, Antiviral,” Cronenberg recalls, as the static mercifully recedes. “And when you travel with a film for the first time it’s a bit of a surreal experience because you’re kind of building a public persona for the first time. You’re really performing another version of yourself that goes off and has its own weird life online without you.

“I was, in a sense, having difficulty seeing myself in my own life. I was waking up in the morning, feeling that I was sitting up in someone else’s life, and having to scramble to construct some kind of character who could operate in that context. So initially I wanted to write a script about a character who may or may not be an imposter in their own life, and use that as a way to talk about how we build characters as narratives in order to operate as people. And the sci-fi thriller elements actually came out of that.”

In the world of Possessor a clandestine agency uses the bleeding edge of neural science to spill blood. Contract killers have their minds implanted into the bodies of other people, trading headspace to edge closer to their intended victims. Star assassin is Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), hired to take out corporate czar John Parse (Sean Bean), owner of a powerful data-mining company. To do this Vos possesses Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), boyfriend of Parse’s daughter, who’s also a target.

It’s a story that feels very much of the moment, given the rise of digital avatars, the erosion of online privacy and the way identity itself has become increasingly malleable. Is Possessor powered by Cronenberg’s own concerns as to where society’s headed?

“It didn’t start that way, but it definitely ended up there,” he tells SFX. “For one, the Snowden leaks happened as I was writing and so I was feeling fairly depressed about the death of privacy. Some of the surveillance elements came into the film in more literal ways, such as the data-mining operation – looking through people’s webcams for these trivial reasons.

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