More Money, More Problems December 15, 2020
On Possessor and The Nest
macabre sense of humor, which could give the horrors he conjured a very dark funniness. In Possessor, there isn’t any relief.
The movie is set in an alternate 2008, where surveillance and data-mining are even more omnipresent than they are now. Its protagonist, Tasya (Andrea Riseborough), works for a top-secret agency that carries out high-profile
assassinations. The organization differs from your standard-fare Parallax-style corporation in that it has a fantastical technology backing it. Its executives can implant the consciousness of one of their assassins into the body of an unwitting civilian. The assassin carries out the kill in that body, then is “taken out” just before their host either inevitably kills themselves or is killed by swarming law enforcement.
Possessor's opening sees Tasya inhabit a Black waitress (Gabrielle Graham). Having the introductory sequence play into the reality that law-enforcement intervention certainly would unfold differently for this waitress than it would a white woman accentuates just how slimy this organization is. They aren’t picking out hosts just because they have a connection to the target that might make them a convincing murderer. They’re also picking hosts most likely to be treated as disposable by society writ large.
Tasya is, essentially, a cipher. Her whitish hair and pallid skin especially emphasize the idea of her being a blank slate waiting to be splattered on by her employers. She has a husband and a son (Rossif Sutherland and Gage Graham-Arbuthnot) at home, though has recently separated from the former. Her job is chipping away at any semblances she has of intimacy and warmth; her empathy is disappearing. The second mission Tasya takes on in Possessor is more complex than the last one (she mostly had to walk up to her prey and stab him); it will also encompass the rest of the film. Her agency has been hired by a man named Reid (left off camera) to murder his stepfather, a data-mining magnate (Sean Bean). Also to be killed are his stepsister (Tuppence Middleton) and her boyfriend, Colin (Christopher Abbott), who comes from a lowlier background and was recently hired by his father-in-law-to-be to work a menial position at office headquarters. (It’s a creepy job: Colin watches unaware people through their webcams all day and takes note of the decor in their apartments and houses so collaborating companies can better market to them online.)
The plan is that Tasya will inhabit Colin. “He’ll” kill his girlfriend, her father, and then himself in what will appear to be a rage-induced bloodbath. It would make sense for the looked-down-on boyfriend to snap one day. Reid is set to prematurely accrue massive wealth with no one left in the family to receive an inheritance (the Bean character isn’t married). He doesn’t know that after the job is complete, the agency plans to take control of the family corporation. It’s diabolical stuff — a macabre battle between privacy-invading ghouls.
When Tasya enters Colin, what results are not internal, goofy dialogues over who’s controlling who like Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin had back in 1984's All of Me. Tasya fully inhabits her host; she has to get used to perfecting his gait when others aren't looking and peeing while standing up. In Possessor, the twist is that Colin is not like the other people Tasya has dominated. He eventually starts psychologically fighting back; his and Tasya's psyches start spinning around together in a twisted tango. In her early scenes, Riseborough efficiently rends any vestiges of what could seem to be one-dimensional villainy by persuasively appearing ashamed of herself for doing what she’s doing. It’s like she can’t help herself. Abbott is even better; he gets just right the paradox of outwardly doing everything "correctly" but with an offness an observer would immediately pick up on not be able to logically pinpoint.
Cronenberg doesn’t delve deep into the histories or inner lives of its dueling duo. Perhaps the movie would have more emotional resonance if he did, getting us to fully understand what it has taken for Tasya to acclimate to the unthinkable conditions of this brutal job or what exactly is being lost for Colin once his autonomy is hijacked. But these things are not sorely needed for the movie to work; they’d be more additional perks. What makes Possessor scary, in the way Invasion of the Body Snatchers and other movies of its ilk are, is the timelessly sinister idea that you really cannot trust anyone, and that someone is watching when you least expect it. As time lurches forward, surveillance becomes both more ubiquitous and sneaky; there’s a feeling that this evolution is unstoppable, and so as a public it’s easy to not necessarily explicitly comply but rather give in. Possessor
pushes a rather dystopic kind of acquiescence to its limits. Like his father, Cronenberg has a gift for turning his anxieties about the capitalistic exploitation of powerful technology (see 1981's Scanners or 1983's Videodrome) into smart, unsettling horror. Agonizing as it can be to sit through, it's an exciting kind of confrontation.
Andrea Riseborough in 2020's Possessor.
ossessor, Brandon Cronenberg’s debut movie, updates the classic body-invasion thriller conceit. Whereas 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers
could be read as an allegory for acquiescence in an Eisenhower-era America — maybe even a more conservative allegory for communist “intrusion” — Possessor fixes on one’s fear of a loss of privacy in a world where surveillance is progressively inescapable. It’s a genuinely frightening movie. By the time the third act has arrived, you start getting eager for the film to end. Not because it’s gotten boring but because it’s an excruciating test enduring this bad dream we've paid Cronenberg to put in our heads. Cronenberg shares his famous horror filmmaker father David’s knack for instilling in the viewer an unease so potent that you might get to the end credits wishing there was a way to shower your brain. But hasn't made a movie featuring his dad's
he Nest is writer-director Sean Durkin’s first movie since 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene; it’s an exquisitely tense feature about a family on the brink of collapse. There were undoubtedly already little
cracks forming in the lives of its central four, the upper-class O’Haras, before the action starts in the movie. The Nest watches those cracks expand into gaping holes. Its dread looms so large that we anticipate that the film is either going to turn into some kind of conventional psychological thriller, or perhaps a haunted-house movie for most of its length. (The O’Haras’ problems are in large part worsened by a move.) But that’s just Durkin doing a good job homing in on the claustrophobia, both physical and emotional, that increasingly eats at his characters.
When The Nest opens (it’s set in the mid-1980s), the O’Haras are living in a suburb of New York, in a luxe house whose affluent comfort is almost encapsulated by the sight of a fussy, state-of-the-art cappuccino maker in the kitchen. The patriarch, Rory (Jude Law), is a commodities broker successful enough to afford every bell and whistle his heart desires. The matriarch, Allison (a tremendous Carrie Coon), is a horseback-riding teacher. She’s not in it for the money: she’s doing it because she loves it, and her husband’s money allows her to live out her passion without having to worry about potential shortfalls. Rory and Allison have a son together, 10-year-old Ben (Charlie Shotwell). Allison has a teenage daughter, Sam (Oona Roche), from a previous marriage. The family’s existence in the movie's early scenes seems comfortable if familiarly unexciting on the day to day. The pleasant predictability of their everyday lives is summed up to us by the recurring sight of Rory waking Allison up in the mornings by delivering a cup of coffee to her in bed. We’re sure there is a healthy amount of discontent somewhere inside these people, but their routines keep it from bubbling over.
That is until one morning when Rory greets Allison with her usual morning brew alongside the news that he thinks the family should move back to his native England. He just doesn’t have the professional opportunities he thought he would have in America, he says. Allison is instantaneously — understandably — furious. The family has relocated several times now in only the last few years, typically on account of Rory thinking someplace new holds something financially
better. (Coming to New York has been the only time so far the family has “started over” with Allison’s interests — being closer to her family and having more avenues to see through her equestrian dreams — in mind.) No one wants to go to England. But one can’t that successfully argue with a primary breadwinner if the end game isn’t separation.
What we see in The Nest — the fish-out-of-water discomfort of the wife and kids and martial trouble getting a new prominence (sometimes the movie feels like 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf if everything was stuck simmering) — isn’t new. But Durkin’s realization of it is overwhelmed with a creepiness that keeps us tense. We're always anticipating the worst. And his slow reveal of the deception driving much of the malaise has a delectable anticlimacticness. It turns out that Rory is actually not as prosperous as he acts. When he’s buying flashy stuff it isn’t because he can but because he’s more obsessed with appearance-keeping than checkbook-balancing. After introducing his family to their new home — a castle-like estate where doors have a tendency to open on their own — Rory presents Allison with a plush chinchilla coat, as if it were a make-it-better kiss. It's needless flaunting covered in needless flaunting; Rory does so much needless flaunting that he's creating a mountain of debt with it.
It isn’t until Allison hears from the company Rory’s hired to build her a stable (their most recent check bounced) that she understands that the lifestyle she has gotten used to is a sham. And that, by design, her marriage is too. More and more it seems her husband has no center. Does he love his family as much as he likes showing off his nuclear idyll? His life has become multilayered performance art to him. We wonder when he started to care more about preserving spectacle than his family's well-being. “I pretend to be rich,” Rory confesses to a cab driver who asks what he does for a living toward the end of the movie. Rory says as an excuse that he does this because he wants his kids to have the upbringing he didn’t have. But in his quest to attain “something more” has he lost sight of how to consistently provide even what he did have.
Law’s performance could do with a little more smarmy charm; we sometimes find it hard to believe that he has
long been pretty much conning his way through life, apparently for the most part well. Coon, by contrast, gives one of the year’s best performances as a smart and sensible woman being pushed to her wits’ end. There’s a particularly great scene in the middle of the movie during which Allison and Rory are at a party, and the latter's boss is toasting to his old employee’s return. When he alludes to the circumstances around the rehire, he inadvertently contradicts everything Rory had told Allison when he presented her with the idea of moving. The camera rests on her face the whole speech, and we watch, mesmerized, as her visage starts showing her painful, gradual realization, like a Baked Alaska feeling the effects of an overheated room. There are a handful of scenes wherein Allison calls out Rory’s fakeness while wearing ostentatious clothing, squeezing a cigarette with flashily manicured fingers; in these moments she recalls the brash heroines of Martin Scorsese’s crime dramas putting a damper on their image-obsessed opposite's self-importance.
But like those heroines, Allison isn’t one-noted. Stylish confidence is just one of her facets, and her accelerating exasperation gives the movie its center. Coon superbly projects her character’s unease; Allison is righteously angry at her husband for his fraudulence, and at herself for not paying very much attention to it in the past. (Allison boldly calls him out at a work dinner while he’s posturing in front of his colleagues — it’s a thrilling moment.) But she’s also hopelessly sad that her life, which she thought was on solid ground, is in far more precarious a state than she had been led to believe. We feel the weight of this watching The Nest. When we finally understand that there isn’t going to be any sort of cathartic horror in the movie, like we had been preparing for, we realize that the horror of living a lie and being stuck in that lie is scary enough. Having no immediate way to reverse or immediately relieve its effects makes it even more nightmarish than a more tangible, impersonal horror.
The Nest: A