Director – Brandon Cronenberg – 2020 – Canada – Cert. 18 – 103m
A woman possesses other people’s bodies via technology to assassinate selected targets – on VoD via BFI Player and Crouch End Arthouse from Friday, November 27th following its debut in the BFI London Film Festival 2020 on Friday, October 16th.
Anyone who’s seen Brandon Cronenberg’s earlier Antiviral (2012) will know that he is a force to be reckoned with, operating in much the same area as his father David (whose Crash, 1996, is currently out on VoD and is released on UHD and BD on December 14th) but with his own, highly individual slant. And equally impressive.
His protagonist here is assassin Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) whose boss Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) inserts Vos’ consciousness into others so she can carry out hits on designated targets while occupying their bodies and consciousnesses. Lately, though, things haven’t been going quite to plan. In the body of Holly (Gabrielle Graham), Vos picks up a cutlery knife then repeatedly and bloodily stabs her target with it rather than simply shooting him with the supplied gun. Although Vos gives all the right answers in the psychological evaluation tests following her return, Girder is concerned.
He fears are raised further when Vos asks for time off with her partner Michael (Rossif Sutherland) and young son Ira (Gage Graham-Arbuthnot). After a mere day and some athletic sex, she’s phoning Girder to come into work and apologising that she wasn’t herself.
Girder immediately has Vos implanted into her next host Colin Tate (Christopher Abbot), partner of heiress Ava Parse (Tuppence Middleton), whose industrialist father John (Sean Bean) is Vos’ target. Because of issues of body compatibility, Vos only has three days and must use a device to recalibrate the synchronisation between herself and her host, but Girder thinks that will be fine. However, it doesn’t work out fine at all.
Apart from Vos’ separated partner and son, who frankly would be better off well shot of her, all the characters here have one way or another been dehumanised by corporate capitalism. Vos’s jobs are motivated by corporate policy. The assassination of John Parse, for example, is intended to facilitate a corporate takeover of his company by the company that employs Vos. Ava is extremely well-heeled, but at a cost. She clearly hates her father. Colin has been given a menial job involving a VR headset and spying on potential clients via hidden surveillance cameras in order to understand their tastes and sell them more product. He is a weak man completely bought out by money.
After a successful kill or kills, Vos is supposed to ask to be pulled out just before shooting her host’s body to avoid complications. This works something like the Beaming Up of Star Trek, except that it’s just Vos’ consciousness that travels back to her own head and body. However, after the Parse job, that doesn’t quite work. Her and her host’s bodies have gone out of sync (shades of the twin brothers in Dead Ringers, David Cronenberg, 1988) and Brandon Cronenberg is clearly fascinated by the ongoing struggle for control between the two minds within the one body. It all gets very messy and violent as the host starts to access Vos’ memories and act upon them. The director piles on the video editing effects to express the two characters confusions which makes for highly effective cinema. There are moments of bloody victims crawling across the floor to the accompaniment of drone music which call to mind nothing so much as the sense of dread in the images and score at the end of Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983).
There’s perhaps a sense that Brandon Cronenberg is taking his father’s work and extending it: the Cronenberg family filmography, if you will. Their sensibilities are similar, yet subtly different. If anything, the younger Cronenberg’s concerns are more science fictional, although the film contains many moments of deeply upsetting, visceral horror too. As SF, it’s highly provocative. As a thriller, it’s intelligent, edge of the seat stuff. As horror, quite simply, it delivers. The whole thing makes one want to see the wider body of work that will surely follow in the years to come. Like his father before him, Brandon Cronenberg is slowly proving himself, film by film, one of the most significant directors of his generation.
Read my alternative review in Reform.