Primal Scream: Identity & Performance in Possessor

Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor is superficially a film about corporate espionage operatives attempting to invade the minds and bodies of other people (at least temporarily). From a broader perspective, the film is about self-actualization and the complicated ways performative social cues are instrumental to identity. Possessor takes the audience through assassin Tasya Vos’s journey to truly embrace her real, authentic self. And that self is an absolute monster.

Scenes of self-harm are discussed below

It would be rather reductive to slap a label of Antisocial Personality Disorder on Tasya (Andrea Riseborough). Her work in this near-future world requires her to mimic the real world social behaviors of her host in order to assassinate high dollar value targets. One person is a vessel, the other person is a paycheck. She is a veteran in her field--a “star”, at least in the view of her handler Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh). There’s an implied history here, one that hints at years and possibly decades of work with the company.

It stands to reason that there was a point in the past where Tasya was able to accept herself as a killer and lean into her strengths to propel her career forward. However, somewhere along the way Tasya started to wander away from herself. She married Michael (Rossif Sutherland), and they had their son Ira (Gage Graham-Arbuthnot), all while Tasya hides her work. But Tasya’s core self couldn’t stay submerged totally. We learn that she and Michael had only recently separated as Tasya felt she wasn’t safe for them anymore; she “had become a danger.” 

We are given our first glimpse inside Tasya’s mind in the film’s opening sequence. Hidden from audience view, Tasya possesses hostess Holly (Gabrielle Graham) in order to carry out a hit. Though she had been given a gun for the task, Tasya instead finds a more alluring weapon in the lounge. A steak knife is shown on a table as Holly/Tasya lovingly stares at it before using the knife to repeatedly stab her mark in the chest. She appears to enjoy the act of violently killing up close--she slowly smears her hand in the pool of blood underneath her victim, regarding the carnage. When the killing's, done she asks her associates to “pull her out” of Holly, but instead of shooting Holly in the mouth--as we learn is protocol--she elects to commit “suicide by cop” and experience death in a hail of bullets before re-entering her own body. Whether she wants to admit it to herself or not, this is clearly a woman who relishes violence, death, and destruction.

The impact of these events is lingering for Tasya. Following a debrief session with Girder, Tasya then goes to visit her estranged husband and son. Before going into their home, she stands outside, practicing the mundane small talk she plans to engage in with them. Still unable to accept her true self, Tasya instead reverts to work mode and tries to take on the persona of “Tasya Vos: Totally Normal Wife & Mother.” She spends the evening with them, and eventually has sex with Michael. She doesn’t enjoy it, however, until she thinks about her violent stabbing as Holly.

Potentially troubled by the fact that she finds sexual gratification in bloody violence, Tasya signs herself up for another job at work. When they meet to discuss this, Girder makes it clear that she is grooming Tasya to be her replacement. Tasya says she would be honored and Girder responds with, “You have a very special nature. One we’ve worked hard together to unlock and refine.” This appears to be corporate double-speak for being a great killer. Girder is clearly concerned about Tasya denying her true self by continuing to play family with family. She warns Tasya, “Sometimes that’s all it takes to lose control. That small thought, like a tiny fracture.”  The small thought of being anyone other than herself will ultimately lead Tasya to a crisis of self identity.

Although Tasya clearly has her doubts about her ability to continue to perform her job, she goes on to possess the body of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott) in order to murder a tech magnate John Parse (Sean Bean) and his daughter--and Colin’s girlfriend--Ava Parse (Tuppence Middleton). Early in her time as Colin, Tasya sees a tiny piece of white fuzz floating and vibrating in the air that disappears when she touches it. This appears to be the small thought, the tiny fracture that will soon take her down. The phantom speck appears again when Colin goes to work inhabiting another virtual perspective; but when Tasya touches it she loses control of Colin temporarily. It appears as though Tasya’s denial of her true self has fractured her ability to inhabit a host with total control. During this break, Colin sees Tasya inside of him, and also catches a glimpse of a bloody Ira inside her mind which hints at the darkness her true self wants to carry out on her family. When Girder voices concern about this event, Tasya denies any issues and tries to blame what happened on the mission techs. 

When it comes time for Colin to kill John, Tasya again eschews a gun for a much more brutal, gory beating with a fireplace poker. After beating John and shooting Ava, Tasya asks to be pulled out of Colin. However, because Tasya has diluted her true nature too much she loses herself to Colin. He won’t let her facilitate this apparent suicide and Colin takes over his body & brain again entirely. Colin makes it to the apartment of a friend (Kaniehtiio Horn), but loses control back to Tasya. A plant from her company arrives to try and help her with the issues she’s having with Colin. While they work on Colin’s brain, Colin attempts to kill Tasya. When that doesn’t work, the pair have a battle of the subconscious where he rips Tasya’s face off and wears it as a distorted mask. This mask allows him to see into her mind and memories until she regains control. But it’s too late, Colin has seen Michael & Ira and begins making his way to them. 

A crazed Colin bursts into Michael & Ira’s home, holding Michael at gunpoint and demanding to know where Tasya is. This makes Tasya “come out” from within his mind and the two dialogue.  Finally starting to embrace her true self instead of trying to protect Michael, she attempts to mindfuck Colin, telling him he’s been in control and he is actually responsible for the killings. When Colin threatens Michael, Tasya tells him, “Poor Michael. I loved him too. But I’m not sure if it was me.” She tells Colin to kill Michael, and when he can’t she grabs his hand and, finally honest with herself, she states, “This is what you always wanted” before brutally hacking Michael to death with a cleaver. Then Ira appears suddenly and stabs Colin in the neck. Tasya as Colin shoots her son to death in response. Colin and Ira lay on the floor and bleed out, their blood meeting to form a heart that is a grotesque parody of the mother-son connection they once tenuously shared.

When Tasya is pulled out of Colin and brought back to her body, Girder again tests her in a debrief that mirrors a scene at the start of the film. Tasya goes through a box of objects, identifying whether they are hers or not while providing essential context. Early in the film, when Tasya picks up a framed and mounted red butterfly she says, “I killed and mounted it one summer when I was a little girl. Then I felt guilty about it. I still feel guilty about it.” This time, when Tasya picks up the butterfly she says, “This is also mine. I killed and mounted it one summer when I was a little girl.” There is no more pretense of guilt. There is no more denial of who she truly is. Tasya Vos is fully herself, as monstrous as that person may be.


Special Contributor

Dr. Natalie is a licensed clinical psychologist in Los Angeles, California. In addition to having a private practice where she specializes in addiction & trauma, she is a long-time horror fan who enjoys 80s slashers, Asian horror, the new French extremity, vampire flicks, space horror, and the works of Clive Barker. Oh, and don’t forget Troll 2.