Personal Identity in Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor

2020 was a tough year for movies. Pandemic restrictions made it nearly impossible for filmmakers to get anything done, and with theaters shut down, it was almost equally difficult for fans to find anything new to watch. But thankfully, 2020 wasn’t a complete loss. It had a few cinematic bright spots, especially in the horror genre, and one of the best was Brandon Cronenberg’s fantastic sophomore effort Possessor.

Possessor is a genre-bending sci-fi/horror masterpiece about an assassin who possesses the bodies of unsuspecting victims and uses them to carry out her grisly work, and as anyone who’s seen it can attest, it’s one of the most compelling horror films in recent memory. It tells a super original and engaging story, and it’s brought to life with top-notch work from just about the entire cast and crew.

On top of that, Possessor also has a really timely and thought-provoking message, and in my opinion, that just might be the best thing about it. It’s essentially an exploration of personal identity, and it uses its bizarre story to raise an important question that’s become even more timely in the years since its release. That alone makes this movie well worth a watch, so let’s take a deep dive into it and see what important lessons it has in store for us.

Colin Tate

A man looking intense

As I said, Possessor is about an assassin who possesses people to carry out her work, but unlike most possession films, this one isn’t supernatural. Rather, its main character, a woman named Tasya Vos, works for a mysterious organization that uses technology to carry out its nefarious operations. It implants chips into people’s brains, and it uses those chips to transfer its assassins’ minds into their unwitting victims’ bodies. Then, when their work is done, the assassins return to their own bodies by forcing their hosts to commit suicide.

Tasya is one of those stealth assassins, and for most of the film, she’s in the body of a man named Colin Tate. She’s tasked with assassinating Colin’s fiance Ava and his soon-to-be father-in-law John, but something goes wrong. Not only does John survive the attack (although Ava dies), but more importantly, when she puts her gun in Colin’s mouth, she’s unable to pull the trigger.

For some reason, she simply can’t make the guy kill himself, and that gives him a chance to temporarily take back control of his body. He uses the opportunity to stab himself right where his chip is, and that stops Tasya from getting back in the driver’s seat again. However, Colin’s troubles have only just begun.

Even though he’s back in control of his body, he’s confused about why he attacked Ava and John, and he still has some of Tasya’s memories. For example, at one point in Possessor, he tells a friend of his, “I should’ve stayed with Michael,” and when she asks him who Michael is, he responds, “I don’t know.” But we know exactly who he’s talking about. Michael is Tasya’s estranged husband, so Colin is actually expressing one of her thoughts, not his own.

The Worm

A man with a gun to his head

Eventually, Colin gains greater access to Tasya’s memories (this is the scene where Colin crushes her head, wears her face like a mask, and relives some of her memories while wearing that mask), so he goes to Michael’s house and demands to know just what Tasya did to him. Unsurprisingly, Michael has no idea what his wife has done, so he can’t help the guy. However, in the course of their conversation, Colin says something that basically sums up the whole point of Possessor:

Just think, one day your wife is cleaning the cabinet, and she gets a worm in her. And that worm ends up in her brain, and the next thing that happens is she gets an idea in there too. And it’s hard to say whether that idea is really hers or it’s just the worm. And it makes her do certain things. Predator things. Eventually, you realize that she isn’t the same person anymore. She’s not the person that she used to be. It’s got to make you wonder whether you’re really married to her or married to the worm.

On the surface, it looks like those words are about Tasya, but given Colin’s predicament and his purpose in confronting Michael, it’s clear that he’s really talking about himself. He’s the one who’s been infected, and Tasya is the worm giving him ideas and making him do “predator things.” She invaded his mind and made him attack his fiance and soon-to-be father-in-law, and even though he remembers those events, he doesn’t know why he did them.

In a nutshell, Tasya has remade Colin in her own image and turned him into a completely different person, so he doesn’t know who he is anymore. He’s not sure if he’s still himself or if he’s now become the worm (i.e., Tasya), and at its core, that’s what Possessor is all about. Its outlandish sci-fi possession story is a metaphor for the ways people can sometimes take control of others and remake them in their own image (through more realistic methods, of course), and it’s asking us to examine our lives and see if we’ve allowed anyone to take control of our thoughts or actions in similar ways.

Tasya’s Family

A man looking happy

But Colin isn’t the only character in Possessor who embodies that message. Tasya does too, and if we examine her arc in the film closely, we’ll find that her situation actually packs a much more powerful emotional punch. See, Tasya isn’t just an assassin. She’s also a wife and mother, and unsurprisingly, those two sides of her personality don’t mesh very well. Her job requires her to be a cold-blooded killer devoid of mercy or compassion, but her family needs her to be loving and empathetic.

That’s a really tough balancing act to pull off, and Tasya is not at all up to the task. When Possessor begins, her work life is winning the battle pretty handily. Not only is she estranged from her husband, but at one point in the film, we even get a glimpse of just how disconnected from her family she really is. She takes some time off from work to be with her husband and son, and right from the get-go, it’s clear that her relationship with them is pretty shaky.

For example, before Tasya even steps foot in their house, she practices different lines she’s going to say to them, so she obviously has difficulty relating to them. It just doesn’t come naturally to her (at least not anymore), so she has to construct a facade and smooth out its rough edges to try to make it work.

What’s more, the entire time she’s with her husband and son, Tasya never seems truly happy. Her general demeanor is very distant and disconnected almost the entire time, and she experiences visions of her grisly work at some really strange moments, like when she’s having sex with Michael. Granted, she never actually says what’s wrong, but it’s not hard to figure out. She can’t get her job out of her head, and that keeps her from being fully present to her family. It prevents her from giving her role as wife and mother her all, so unsurprisingly, she goes back to work a bit sooner than she initially planned.

Then, in the final act of Possessor, Tasya does something unthinkable. While still in Colin’s body, she tells him to kill her husband, and after he complies, she takes back control and kills her son, definitively ending the battle between her work life and her home life. She severs all the family ties that were holding her back from her job as an assassin, and she divests herself of every last ounce of love and compassion, truly becoming the merciless and cold-blooded killer her employers need her to be.

Tasya’s Manipulation

Tasya in the machine

However, if we pay close attention to Tasya’s journey, we can see that she doesn’t freely choose to become an emotionless predator. She’s just being manipulated by her boss, a woman named Girda, and at one point in Possessor, Girda practically admits to it. She tells Tasya:

You have a very special nature, one we’ve worked hard together to unlock and refine.  And yet, even I can see a small thread running from your skull to a life I thought you’d moved on from.  Sometimes that’s all it takes to lose control. That small thought, like a tiny fracture.

The “very special nature” she and Tasya have “worked hard together to unlock and refine” is Tasya’s penchant for being a cold-blooded killer, and as I said, Girda straight up admits to molding her into that and trying to distance her from her family. Sure, she says she and Tasya have done it together, but I don’t buy that. At best, she’s brainwashed Tasya into believing she wants to be an assassin rather than a wife and mother, so even though Tasya may have cooperated on some level, it was really Girda’s idea all along.

And why do I think that? Well, for starters, early on in Possessor, before Tasya visits her family, she tells Girda about her plans to spend some time with them, but Girda resists the idea. She reminds Tasya that she and Michael are separated, and when Tasya explains that they’ve been talking about getting back together, Girda doubles down on her disapproval. She says, “You’re not safe for them anymore, are you? You told me yourself you’d become a danger.”

Significantly, Tasya replies that she doesn’t remember saying that about herself, and that’s a pretty big red flag. We can’t be 100% sure, but I don’t think Tasya really forgot anything. I think Girda just made it up, and she’s essentially gaslighting Tasya into cutting herself off from her family and dedicating herself entirely to her job.

Secondly, let’s revisit Colin’s comments about Tasya and the worm. When we covered them earlier, I said Colin was really talking about himself, not Tasya, but that’s only partially true. See, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Brandon Cronenberg wrote those lines the way he did. He purposely made Colin speak about himself in terms that literally refer to Tasya, and that’s significant. It means that Colin’s predicament isn’t just a metaphor for us viewers in the real world. It’s also a metaphor for what Tasya goes through in Possessor, so she’s actually being manipulated by Girda just as much as she herself has manipulated Colin.

Tasya’s Test

Tasya in a psychological exam

Last but not least, let’s look at two crucial events that bookend Tasya’s journey from torn mother to dedicated assassin. Possessor opens with her carrying out an assassination, and when she returns to her body, she undergoes a psychological exam to make sure her personality didn’t get damaged or mixed up with her host’s. Girda shows her a bunch of objects that may or may not be from her past, and she has to explain what connection (if any) she has to them.

One of those objects is a framed butterfly, and when Tasya looks at it, she says, “I killed and mounted it one summer when I was a girl, and then I felt guilty about it. I still feel guilty about it.” And that’s our smoking gun. Granted, it doesn’t seem that way at first, but if we jump ahead to the final scene, we’ll see just how important this comment really is.

After Tasya finally kills Colin and returns to her body at the end of the film, she undergoes that exam again, and when she gets to the butterfly, her words about it are really telling. Just like the first time, she just says, “I killed and mounted it one summer when I was a little girl,” but surprisingly, she doesn’t express any regret over it. In fact, she looks almost like she wants to say something, but she holds back and remains silent. Then, immediately after that, we see an ever-so-slight smile form on Girda’s lips, and the woman says, “Very good.”

And with that, it becomes undeniable that Girda really has been manipulating Tasya all along. If she were being honest, she would’ve been concerned that Tasya forgot to express her guilt at killing the butterfly. That’s a pretty big change in her personality, so her time in Colin’s body clearly had an adverse effect on her. In fact, it had the exact kind of adverse effect this test is supposed to check for, so Girda really shouldn’t have been happy about it.

But she was. Her smile makes that clear, so it’s obvious that she doesn’t genuinely care about Tasya’s well-being. She only cares about molding her employee into a cold, unfeeling killer, so she didn’t really work with Tasya to “unlock and refine” her “very special nature.” No, she just manipulated Tasya and brainwashed her into thinking she wanted to leave her family and dedicate herself entirely to her job, so in this relationship, Girda really is the worm that makes Tasya do “predator things.”

The Meaning of Possessor

A man with blood on his clothes

As I said before, Possessor is essentially a metaphor for how people can manipulate others into thinking and acting in certain ways, and when we look at Tasya’s arc in addition to Colin’s, that becomes doubly clear. Both of the story’s main characters were controlled by other people, so it’s pretty obvious that this is what the film is ultimately about.

And that leaves us with one last question: What exactly should we learn from Possessor? Well, the way I see it, it’s basically a warning beacon telling us to be on the lookout for manipulation and to avoid it whenever we see it. For example, in the realm of politics, we shouldn’t be so attached to one party or point of view that we just mindlessly parrot everything they say without considering opposing perspectives.

Granted, there’s nothing wrong with having strong opinions, but they should be informed opinions, not just blind devotion. We should think things through for ourselves and come to our own conclusions rather than let politicians and pundits tell us what to believe, and that’s true in every area of our lives, not just politics. We should never let other people control us the way Girda controlled Tasya or Tasya controlled Colin, and in my opinion, that’s the ultimate meaning of Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor.

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Written by JP Nunez

JP Nunez is a lifelong horror fan. From a very early age, he learned to love monsters, ghosts, and all things spooky, and it's still his favorite genre today.

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