The Sundance Film Festival has a reputation as a showcase for dialogue-heavy, character-driven independent cinema, but it’s not all dramedies about people coming to terms with their family members. There’s room in this massive program for experimentation, most commonly in the NEXT and World Dramatic sections of the program, where one could find this trio of disturbing dramas about identity and masculinity.
The best of the three is Brandon Cronenberg’s divisive “Possessor,” a film for which the festival actually turned away anyone who tried to get in that was under 18. It’s not hard to see why. The son of the legendary David Cronenberg has a similar interest in body horror although Brandon’s taste arguably skews even a little gorier and crazier. “Possessor” is a surreal journey into a world of sci-fi/horror that the official description in the Sundance program called a “splendid mindfuck.” Put that on your movie poster.
“Possessor” opens with arguably its most startling scene, pushing viewers instantly, almost as if it’s saying, “If you can’t handle this, you should probably leave now.” A young black woman inserts a needle in the top of her head, turning a dial that we will later learn is “calibrating” her as we watch her face go from happy to miserable. That night, while working at a party, she walks up to a man and jabs a knife in his throat. And then stabs him repeatedly as the other party goers flee in terror. We quickly learn that she has been “possessed” by another person, Tasya, played by Andrea Riseborough. Working with a handler played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tasya literally takes over people’s minds for a few days, using them to commit assassinations. The latest assignment involves the son-in-law (Christopher Abbott) of a powerful man (Sean Bean), and it’s going to be Tasya’s toughest job yet.
His film awash in reds and blues, Cronenberg is a visual storyteller, and “Possessor” works best when taken as a sensory experience. I’m not sure it adds up to much and I actually responded to the film more when it wasn’t even trying, such as in an amazing sequence in which one character literally wears the face of another. As the line between Tasya and her latest host body starts to wear down, “Possessor” becomes more like a surreal fever dream, and this material works better than the notable gore or character work. Cronenberg is clearly a talented filmmaker, and he gets typically all-in performances from the great Riseborough and Abbott, who are willing to go along with his vision. Like an actual nightmare, it’s the imagery you’ll remember more than the narrative.
Aneil Karia’s “Surge” was described to me as a “British Falling Down,” which is only half-true. This is a more intimate, immediate visceral film, the story of a man’s mental breakdown caught on film. It features another phenomenal performance from Ben Whishaw, although the entire exercise feels a little distanced from reality, like looking through a window at the day someone life’s changed forever and wishing you were more involved in the entire affair to really care about what happens.
Whishaw does a 180 from his typically polite on-screen demeanor as Joseph, an airport security worker who one would barely even notice if they passed him on the street. The first act of “Surge” is a compilation of the daily annoyances of Joseph’s life from the incredibly difficult job of trying to communicate with stressed-out travelers to co-workers who barely know he exists to aggravating parents and so on. We see Joseph has attained a habit of biting down on hard objects like the edge of a glass. One day, he pushes his bite to the point that the glass shatters, driving into his lower lip. And Joseph snaps. It’s almost as if the sight of his own blood reminds him he’s human. What unfolds is a twitchy, intense 24 hours in which Joseph prowls the streets of London, committing crimes and acting almost instinctively. It’s the opposite of his mundane life of routine. Someone else called this “Ben Whishaw’s Joker Audition Reel,” which feels somewhat accurate.
While seeing this wonderful actor spin and contort his way through a film in which he’s dead center in pretty much every frame has interest as an acting exercise, I bluntly never really cared. Part of the problem is that I was constantly distracted by Karia’s visual style, which often feels like someone is running alongside Joseph, bouncing camera and all. The intent is to give us a visceral connection, but it does the opposite, reminding us that a filmmaker is swinging a camera so hard it might break. I like the idea that “Surge” can barely keep up with its protagonist, but it creates a numbing sensation as Joseph’s actions don’t build to a satisfying ending the way they needed to for this film to work beyond a new look at a great actor’s range.
On the one hand, Robert Machoian’s “The Killing of Two Lovers” is another story of a man on the edge, but it’s a far more mundane and common edge than Joseph’s in “Surge.” David (Clayne Crawford, who also produced) is just one of many people in America trying to hold his family together and keep himself from cracking under the stress of doing so. Like so many people, David appears to be at the end of his relationship, but he’s unwilling to admit that, partially because he doesn’t want to lose his four kids but also because he can’t admit that it may be over. At its best, “The Killing of Two Lovers” is a character study of a man who appears on the verge of making a very bad decision – an opening scene gives the whole film a foreboding sense of violence.
From that opening shot, we follow David running down a nearly desolate street. These characters live in a part of the country with wide open spaces, and Machoian contracts his frame to try and reflect the non-existent walls closing in on his characters. David wants to end his separation with Nikki, who may want to end it too, but not in the same way. Nikki has met someone new, and the introduction of a third player into this dynamic could push David to make the wrong decision. While Crawford is strong, it’s all a little too distant to connect – a movie with mannered style and character choices that always reminded me it was a movie – but I’m curious to see what Machoian does next.