Does he seek, or does he hide? An analysis of Possum (2018)
Possum, Matthew Holness’ debut film, has been variously described as “a curiously British horror” (Empire), a “creepy tale” (The Guardian), and a “plot-thin but atmospheric psychological horror” (Variety). But after watching this emotional sledgehammer of a film, I’m convinced that none of these descriptions even begin to do it justice. Possum is undoubtedly a deeply horrible, disturbing film, yes – but to call it horror seems to trivialise the source of the revulsion that one gets when watching it. Though drawing from horror imagery, there’s nothing in Matthew Holness’ devastating debut film that easily fits within the horror genre on anything but the most superficial of levels. The horror that Possum shows us is one that exists in the darkest corners of the everyday. If Possum is horror, then so, too, is real life, if you look below the surface.
In the opening minute of the film, we are presented with the visibly traumatised face of protagonist Philip, played by the marvellously intense Sean Harris, and the isolated landscapes of his childhood home amongst the salt marshes of North Norfolk. From the outset, it is clear that Possum is a film about childhood trauma; of secrets and pain left to fester and rot. When Philip crosses the threshold of his childhood home, possibly thirty years after leaving it, it’s clear that nothing there has changed: it’s only become more decrepit and more desperate. When Philip steps into home, he steps into his past.
The film’s namesake, a frightening puppet that’s half spider, half wax-molded death’s head, is at the core of the trauma, and looms large even when it’s not on-screen. The fact that ‘Possum’ itself, ordinarily carried around by Philip in an old-fashioned holdall, begins to break free from this improvised prison only when he returns to his childhood home is a powerful clue about its nature and origins. During his present-day stay under his Uncle’s roof, as he endures the old man’s casual verbal abuse and wanders around the abandoned landscape of the marshes, railway tracks and now-derelict buildings of the surrounding town, the puppet begins to stir, just as trauma stirs when you return to the place that it happened. And though he’s returned in order to destroy the thing – to confront and overcome his past – it proves very difficult to do so. During the course of the film, Philip drowns, burns and pummels Possum with his fists, but it always makes its way back to him. At one point, after abandoning the puppet in the marshes, Philip becomes so distressed that he physically collapses in a panic, then immediately returns to recover it. The harder Philip fights to be free of Possum the more aggressive it becomes, eventually becoming fully independent, actively stalking him amidst the various venues of his unhappy past. As is often true of deep-seated emotional trauma, Possum operates at a low ebb when left unchallenged but fights back when confronted. Philip tries repeatedly to face his trauma throughout the film, but appears only to be punished for trying. This only changes in the final act.
As a physical entity, ‘Possum’ is a compelling manifestation of major personal trauma. The puppet’s face is overtly modelled on Philip’s own, a nod to the unique nature of every person’s demons. The puppet’s eyes cannot close, suggesting that Philip’s suffering never gives him a moment’s rest. The spider’s legs, we discover after the film’s climax, represent his Uncle’s fingers, the instruments of the sexual torture that the protagonist endured as a boy. Possum is one of the most complex and believable stories of trauma that I have ever seen on-screen, despite much of it being couched in heavy symbolism rather than overtly displayed, as in the equally emotionally devastating Mockingbird Don’t Sing. These details might be small or large, but all are important. Possum is much greater than the sum of its parts, and these details build into a complex and accurate portrait of a man psychologically brought to the brink of ruin by the cruelty of others. The smallest of such details: how Philip jumps down the final step of the staircase, as a young boy might do, or the schoolboy’s satchel hanging just inside the door, untouched for years; to the larger ones: Philip’s fear of a particular closed door in the house, and his reluctance to approach it, illustrate that Philip’s past is alive and kicking. The second he steps through the front door, Philip is a powerless child once again, leered at, admonished and humiliated.
Philip’s status as a victim of abuse is made clear almost from the opening shot. But throughout the film, Matthew Holness presents us with the question of whether Philip has begun to pass on his trauma in the present, as is commonly believed to happen. A fourteen-year-old boy goes missing, and it is the same boy that Philip (apparently unintentionally) frightens in the opening scene on the train; the time that passes between Philip getting off the train and arriving at the house is left entirely to the viewer’s imagination. During the course of the film, Philip attracts significant attention as a possible suspect in this disappearance due to his wanderings and strange behaviour, and by the film’s final act, he is being actively hunted by the police. Philip’s uncle Maurice, in his turn, questions his nephew about the disappearance, but the truth of his intention in doing so lies in one of the more cryptic symbols hidden within the film: the jar of bright green boiled sweets.
We first encounter this jar of old-fashioned, rather disgusting-looking sweets in the scene where we first meet Maurice, Philip’s Uncle. Maurice questions Philip on a ‘scandalous performance’ involving Possum and an audience of children, then immediately offers him “something from the jar.” When Philip asks, “what’s in them?”, Maurice cryptically replies “same as always.” It is clear, then, that these sweets have sat untouched since Philip’s childhood: the sweets are symbolic of Maurice’s part in the events of the past. Philip’s reply: “no, then,” tells us that ‘same as always’ is not something to be desired. In this scene, as in the next, Maurice’s offer of a sweet is juxtaposed with a discussion about Possum, indicating that they are closely linked.
The next time we see the sweets, Maurice questions Philip about the recent disappearance of the schoolboy. When Maurice then describes the fate of other children, who disappeared during Philip’s own childhood (“stuffed ‘em in a bag, he did”), Philip immediately breaks down. Maurice, usually unkind and taciturn in the extreme, becomes tender towards Philip in a way that at first seems wildly incongruent. Whilst apparently comforting his nephew, Maurice once again offers a green sweet to Philip, who accepts, despite the fact that it chokes him and almost makes him vomit. Shortly after, we see Philip looking through the disturbing pictures he drew in his sketch book as a child and see the sweets arrayed out before the looming image of Possum’s face. Clearly, Philip is aware of the hidden nature of the sweets on offer, on some level at least, and is instinctively repulsed by them.
The gulf between what the sweets appear to be – a gift, a source of comfort from Maurice – and Philip’s reaction to them – refusal, choking – are a warning sign, both to Philip and to the viewer, that Maurice is deceiving Philip, using a technique popular with abusers: gaslighting. Maurice hides his guilt under a superficial layer of friendliness, as abusers are commonly known to do, all the while implying that it is his victim, rather than himself, who is the real guilty party. Philip’s rejection of these sweets is gradual and progresses precisely in tandem with his boldness in confronting ‘Possum’. This is anything but a coincidence.
The last time we see the sweets is during a surreal sequence where Philip attempts to take charge of his own reality in a way bolder than ever before, placing one of the sweets into his mouth of his own free will as though testing it. What follows is a struggle between Philip and Possum, which reacts in its most overtly aggressive way yet, looming over Philip and all but pinning him to the bed. Although it is tempting to see Possum as just another enemy in this sequence, it is in this scene that Possum finally reveals its true purpose: an entity that exists to force the truth of Maurice’s guilt into the light. Philip, understanding this, spits out the sweet, rejecting Maurice’s deceit and false authority once and for all.
Upon seeing the truth unmasked, Philip is more visibly distressed than we have ever seen him, but it is soon clear that this is a short-lived, necessary emotional outpouring. We watch as Philip composes himself with an impressive display of resolve, radiating an aura of conscious purpose for the first time in the film. Looking in the mirror, in which we at first only see Possum staring back, Philip sees himself. This tells us that Philip has become something more than the sum of his suffering and is ready to face his true enemy: Maurice.
The film’s climax takes place inside the room behind the closed door that Philip has been fearfully lingering at ever since he arrived – the door behind which the truth lies. Behind this door, everything that the observant viewer has pieced together through clues and symbols is revealed. Maurice, hiding in the shadows, violently rushes at Philip and pins him to the floor, shouting “You knew it was me, didn’t you?” Philip can only mumble “yes” repeatedly, confirming that, despite Philip’s past reluctance to look truth in the face and Maurice’s constant offloading of the guilt onto his victim, the truth was always known by both parties, only kept suppressed through denial.
Now facing Maurice directly, Philip’s earlier resolve withers, and he psychologically regresses back to his childhood self. Pinned to the floor by Maurice, Philip seems completely unaware that he could easily overpower his now frail and elderly uncle. Trapped in a cycle of learned helplessness, Philip instead submits to a cruel parody of the earlier abuse he suffered, even dropping his trousers and enduring a belt-lashing. What happens next, however, unveils the true message of Possum; one that openly challenges the “abused becomes abuser” narrative. What draws Philip out of his wretched regressed state is the realisation that, trapped in a steamer trunk in the room with him, is the missing boy. As he realises that more is at stake than his own pain, he quickly overpowers Maurice and kills him without difficulty, letting the boy free. Ultimately, it is compassion that frees Philip from his mental prison: helping someone else in precisely the manner that he could never manage to help himself.
Possum reminds us that there is another possible destiny for victims of abuse; that they are not simply prisoners, doomed to become monsters themselves. As the credits roll, Philip, like many other real-life victims of horrific abuse, has made a conscious decision to choose good over evil – to conquer his own trauma by helping, rather than harming those about him. To me, Matthew Holness’ debut offering is not a horror story, but a story of survival: of the triumph of a damaged human being against unbelievable evil. Possum is a moving and inspiring tale of how the human spirit can weather the worst of storms, coming out on the other side bruised but unsullied. It is nothing short of a masterpiece.