Monday 21 June 2021

The Question in Bodies #36: Possessor (2020)

(Spoilers, discussion of content that may distress.)


I was on the phone not so very long before writing this with an old friend who, like me, struggles with mental health problems, and my friend said something – and I cannot remember his exact words, or how it came up – to the effect that I should seek that feeling of affirmation that comes when somebody speaks your name. I had a weird sort of epiphany then. I have never considered myself to have a name as such, and hearing the placeholder designation on my birth certificate uttered produces, normally, only a sense that something is wrong. My friend’s statement, then, inspired the realisation that not only do people exist whose names mean something to them, but that these people are somehow in the majority.

Designation is at the heart of language, and at the heart of consciousness. In the Book of Genesis, the first thing Adonai does when They make a thing is to give it a name. Day, Night, Land, Sea. And Adam. And the first job Adam has in Eden is to name everything else. And the naming comes before the Fall. Consciousness of the self preceded the moral awakening in this version of the myth. You can only be aware of good and evil, it assumes, if you have both language and the hooks to hang that language on, a place to put your nouns.

The ancient Egyptians believed that the name was one of the nine parts of a person’s soul. It is one of the earliest complex philosophical models of the self. I wonder if it is because, as it was so long ago, that those Egyptians could still imagine a time when we had no names.

It has been a while, but as I recall, they taught that the name was integral to you, and that if you did not have a name, just as if you were missing any other part of you, you would be a pathetic, grotesque, hungry creature, or that you would cease to exist altogether, that you would fade like an inconsequential recollection.

I keep coming back to this model, and all the more because of the absences, the gaps in my neurology, and the consequent gaps in my identity. My life is not outwardly so bad, at least not anymore. But my identity is made of horror, the horror not of becoming something grotesque and incomplete, but of perhaps inwardly having been that all along.


Let’s talk about Brandon Cronenberg’s 2020 feature Possessor, which approaches exactly these crises. For more than one reason, it turned out to be, for me, one of the most nightmarish, horrifying films I've seen in a long time. Don’t be mistaken, it falling into that vanishingly small category of ”films that really messed me up” is not a criticism of its quality: it is an excellent, if chilly film that works on multiple levels. While in places bloody, it is by no means the goriest or most violent film out there. The horror in the film comes from its implications, its meanings, from the connections you make to understand it. The more that you think about the plot, the more horrible it becomes, which is, I hope you understand, pretty unusual as movies go.

Distilled to the most basic summary possible, it’s a movie about a woman named Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) using technology to pilot other people’s bodies for criminal purposes. It’s a disturbing enough concept, but described like that, it doesn’t have to be horrific, exactly. In fact, the body swap as a conceit is rarely used for horror, being more the terrain of comedy or adventure – the most obvious screen predecessor, I think, is probably the beloved and heartwarming series Quantum Leap (1989-1993). But Tasya Vos does not strive to put right what once went wrong, and her next leap will not be the leap home. And the technology of Possessor is more immediately fleshly than the quasi-divine miracle of the Quantum Leap accelerator. Don’t be mistaken – the technology is still impossible, and gets more impossible as it goes on, but it is based on things that are possible, allowing us to suspend disbelief that much more easily.

At the start of the film we see Holly (Gabrielle Graham), in the process of getting herself ready for her day, produce a small device with a dial, cabled to a long and narrow electrode. She pushes it deep into the top of her head (the implication being that although she must break the skin and draw blood, there is some sort of hidden access port under the skin). Now that the thing is inserted into her brain, she proceeds to work the device, artificially inducing various emotional responses.

(Part of an editorial in Mondo 2000, issue 15, 1996.)

This is a cyberpunk conceit, but also, importantly, it’s actually a retro cyberpunk conceit, a thing that for example Mondo 2000 did more or less exactly back in 1996. I found a scientific paper online from 2006 that details real researchers performing a somewhat cruder version of this process, too. So it’s science fictional, but it’s right at the fringes of possible.

As we go on, when we get to the meat of the film with its conceit of humans remotely piloted, we’ll see ideas that William Gibson, among others, touched on back in the early 80s, and these were not really novel when Gibson did it either. They are not new ideas.

But they are ideas that have not really been explored in film a whole lot, and that's a good place, conceptually speaking, for a film to be in, to draw on ideas that are familiar enough that they can be used without a whole lot of explanation but underused enough that they are still pretty fresh on the screen.

And again, it’s in the execution.


Holly murders a man in the club where she works, an important man. She uses a serving knife, stabbing the man repeatedly; then she pulls out a gun and points it into her mouth. Something inside her refuses suicide, but the point is moot, because the police arrive, and Holly is Black, and holding a gun.

As Holly dies, some distance away Tasya Vos removes an immersion headset. She has been remotely piloting the other woman. We are given to understand that she works for an agency that kidnaps people and subjects them to brain surgery, allowing Tasya the access to pilot them remotely and use them to get close to her target. The subject too must die; after the killing, Tasya forces her host to take their own life. It isn’t explicitly declared at any point in the film, but the reason why is obvious: they are conscious all the time. They know. They even, at the time, of their scheduled suicide, resist. This matters, partly because of what happens next, but also because of where this eventually ends up.

Experiencing the extinction of her host is clearly perilous for Tasya’s identity. In an exit interview with her superior, Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh, pretty much the actor you always tap if you want someone other than comforting) she is shown significant objects from her personal life and must identify them. Although the assumption is that it is better if she remembers who she is, it is not immediately apparent if this is what Girder wants. Girder tries to catch Tasya out, particularly on the details of her relationship with her husband Michael (Rossif Sutherland), and the conversation is ambiguous.

Girder: Our next contract is almost finalised. And it’s a big one! I can’t have my star performer falling apart on me!

Tasya: I would like to take some time though.

Girder: Time for what?

Tasya: I’ve been talking to Michael and – I told him that I’d take some time.

Girder: Michael.

Tasya: Isn’t he-?

Girder: You and Michael are separated.

Tasya: Yeah. Of course we are. [beat] But I’ve been talking to him.

Girder: You’re not safe for them anymore, are you? You told me yourself you’d become a danger.

Tasya: Did I say that?

On a second viewing, this exchange means a lot more. Although a second viewing was a thing I was reluctant to make happen.


Another note on names: while it is really unfair to point out that Brandon Cronenberg is the son of one of the Patron Saints of Identity Horror, since his work needs to be judged on its own merits, it is hard not to notice that Possessor really is fucking Cronenbergian. Part of that is the way that character names are used to signify a fracture with normality. In the films of Cronenberg Père, you often have three levels of character name: characters with normal names who represent some sort of normal world; characters with names that are unusual and a bit fancy, who straddle the line between normality and freakishness; and characters with names that are not really names, designations that represent the full weight of the narrative fracture that brings horror into the world.

In Videodrome, we have Max Renn and Nikki Brand who are already a little depraved, who enter the world of Brian and Bianca O’Blivion and Barry Convex. In early Cronenberg piece Crimes of the Future (apparently at the time of writing about to receive a remake of some sort) the weird happenings are the doings of Adrian Tripod. In The Brood, Nola Carveth is a normal woman who becomes the epicentre of something awful, while Allegra Geller (also Jennifer Jason Leigh) becomes trapped in her own game with Ted Pikul in eXistenZ. Darryl Revok is the villain of Scanners who doesn't know what he's getting into. Max Renn, Allegra Geller, Ted Pikul, Nola Carveth and even Darryl Revok are names that might actually belong to real people, but they're unlikely names, names that are picked because the combination of unusual first name and unusual surname is memorable. These are the characters in danger of losing their humanity.

(Cronenberg isn't the only one to do this: see also Patricia Highsmith, for example, who clearly named the protagonist of her thriller The Tremor of Forgery, which I own but have for obvious reasons never had the nerve to read, for similar reasons.)

Tasya is a real, if unusual, given name; Vos is likewise, a real, if unusual, surname. There aren’t many people called Tasya Vos. Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), Tasya’s primary victim, has an entirely ordinary name. But the unknowable driving force of Possessor and the vehicle for its objectivist evil is just called Girder. No one is called Girder. And Girder really is no one.


When she is about to inhabit Colin, Tasya watches him. She learns to parrot his motions and verbal inflections. She rehearses him. But when she is about to see her husband and son, Tasya rehearses what she will say, the expressions she makes, the responses to expected questions. Tasya the mother and lover is also a part, also a role she plays.

The implication, I suppose, is that Tasya is hollow, that there is no Tasya, only an empty creature adopting motions to appear human. I found that implication a little chilling, personally speaking.

Do you ever find yourself rehearsing the role of your supposed self? I do. And it is my fear, more than anything else in the world, that I myself am hollow, that I have no identity to speak of.

Of course Tasya’s possession of Colin is imperfect. His girlfriend Ava (Tuppence Middleton) notices immediately that Colin is not who he normally is after a single kiss. Their sex – filmed as if Tasya were there, merging in and out of Colin’s form – is disturbing, loveless, new.


The technology of Possessor fools you into believing in it by giving you a related technology that is real, and extrapolating from that.

But Colin’s all too short, far too late wresting of control from Tasya is not a thing that such a technology could permit. Here the film enters the realm of the soul. Here, Colin fights an imaginal battle with Tasya, and, grasping her face, discovers that she has nothing inside her, and so he can tear off her empty face and wear it as a mask (not really a spoiler when it’s on the film poster and the front cover of the DVD box). Through this he gains access to Tasya’s memories, even though Tasya has no access to his. She has limited resources to escape this, and cannot do it alone.

Here, in the heart of the film, we are seeing nothing more or less than a spiritual battle against demonic possession. Emanuel Swedenborg maintained that a devil was once a person who had some essential part of their inner self erased. That definition seems to fit here. Demons don’t traditionally have souls, only names, and knowing their names – recognising them – gives you power over them.

How does Colin have these resources? We are given to understand that he is really not a great guy, so it’s not moral. He has a job that is not just dehumanising, but which both necessarily can’t be done by a machine, and requires its workers to become machines. And it’s humiliating, to boot, given to him by Ava’s father and Tasya’s target the vile industrialist John Parse (Sean Bean), both as favour and punishment.

(I heard a while back that Sean Bean now refuses to take roles where he dies at the end. I’m not commenting on that.)

But Ava loves him. He is in love with Ava. He isn’t much. She is a little out of his league. She isn’t really a saint either. But who is? Colin has a soul. He has a horror of what Tasya uses his body to do. He has been violated. And she is a shell. She is a demon, once human but hollowed out, soulless, and all Colin needs is that soul. And at the same time, his soul will be inadequate. It will not save him.


What does it mean that Tasya’s murders are so violent, so extreme? Each time she has a gun ready, and no, a gun is by no means the vehicle of a clean death, but it’s a fast one. But Tasya prefers to butcher her victims, to mutilate them. Hers is the method of the slasher.

In fact, although she tries to use her gun to eliminate her hosts, she never manages it. She only successfully uses the gun once, right at the end, and the murder she commits is the most unforgivable murder of the film, and a double murder, because it is the means by which she enables the final murder of her self.


I can’t talk about the climactic scene of Possessor, the final twist, not really. Not that I’m bothered about sharing spoilers, but that even writing about it brings back the fact that it is about the most distressing thing I have seen in a new film for years, and more distressing because if you join the dots, the abominable, unforgivable evil of the actions it portrays – the result of an extended background campaign of calculated, premeditated psychopathy – become more and more appalling the more you dwell on their implications.

And the moral horror of these acts is only multiplied by their purpose – they are only the means of the steady and deliberate extinction of Tasya Vos’s personhood, the better to make her an efficient killer, conscience-free and emotionless.

The victims of these possessions have been kidnapped and surgically violated; they are conscious while their bodies are not in their control. No one should experience a horror like that; but no matter how far you go, there is always a line, and each line you cross brings you to a point where your status as human is irrevocably damaged, where no redemption will ever be possible. And all that is left is a thing of malice, without a soul, and only possessing a name.


Possessor is a very good film. I have no desire ever to see it again. I think part of this is down to how I responded to it, personally. We all have our lines, the things that we cannot bear to see. With me it’s innocence brutalised, the erasure of love. It’s terrible things done to children.

And yet, I keep wondering if any moral sense I have is only learned, a rote response. I wonder constantly if I am genuinely capable of love and care for innocence. I struggle with the idea that there is some indefinable, unique spark that makes me “me”. Even demons have True Names, and they don’t even have souls. Where does that put me?