Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor At Sundance

Brandon Cronenberg’s new film POSSESSOR, starring Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbott, made its world premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition. Inspired by the experiments of Spanish neuroscientist José Delgado—who invented a brain implant device to control behavior in both animals and people—Cronenberg’s story investigates those using and being used by such a technology. Describing his research into Delgado’s work, Cronenberg told us:

“He [Delgado] could control emotions. He talks about making patients fall in love with doctors by turning up the electricity; they would start by saying, ‘I really don’t like this doctor’ and by the end they’d be proposing marriage. He could control limbs—[patients] would do a series of movements and then think that they chose those movements. They would get off a chair, walk around in a circle, and sit down, and then Delgado would say, why did you do that? They would say, oh, I heard a noise. And then he’d press the button and they’d go through the same motions again and he’d say, why did you do that? And they’d say, I was looking for my shoes—all sort of terrifying, but philosophically really interesting stuff.”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute, photo by Karim Hussain.

Delgado controlled the electrical impulses that the brain implant delivered with a remote, but in POSSESSOR Cronenberg takes the device out of the lab and into the corporate world where employees possess “hosts,” at a cost to their own psyche and physical brain. Riseborough’s character Tasya, who works as a possessor, seems to live for the work. That work involves possessing a body and assassinating others; the possessor's consciousness acts in the host's body, so that the host is the one blamed. Who Tasya is, who is in control, and who wants what are all called into question. (At one point in the film, Delgado’s famous experiment with a bull, in which he pacified the animal mid-charge, appears on the television.)

At POSSESSOR’s world premiere at Sundance, Cronenberg responded to an audience question about how his father—David Cronenberg—influenced his work, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. My father owns a pet store and he has obviously no influence on me whatsoever.”

Christopher Abbott, Andrea Riseborough, Brandon Cronenberg at Sundance. © 2020 Sundance Institute, photo by Jemal Countess.

Cronenberg’s short film, PLEASE SPEAK CONTINUOUSLY AND DESCRIBE YOUR EXPERIENCES AS THEY COME TO YOU, which premiered in 2019, is visually related to POSSESSOR because of the work of cinematographer Karim Hussein, who filmed both the short and feature. POSSESSOR is written and directed by Brandon Cronenberg. In addition to Riseborough and Abbott, the film stars Rossif Sutherland, Tuppence Middleton, Sean Bean, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. It is produced by Niv Fichman, Andy Starke, Kevin Krikst, and Fraser Ash. Its special effects artist, Dan Martin, Cronenberg described as a “genius” at the premiere.