Possessor Explained: The Red Mounted Butterfly

With Possessor, Cronenberg crafts a brutal, gross-out horror packing a deeply disturbing, existential punch. 

Gruesome murders and melting bodies abound in the filmmaker’s excellent sophomore feature. Yet Possessor‘s trippy, gory atmosphere pales in comparison with the most innocent of symbols: a framed red butterfly. Here the butterfly becomes the benchmark to protagonist Tasya Vos’ conscience. As crimson as the blood she spills on the job as an elite hitwoman, this seemingly unassuming dead insect takes on a pivotal role as the movie progresses.

Vos has the piercing, wide-eyed stare of Andrea Riseborough, once again in a challenging role she manages to infuse with complexity. In a bleak, alternate 2008 Toronto, the character hijacks people’s bodies to enact complicated murder-suicide plots. Vos transplant her consciousness into her hosts, prompting them to kill her target and then commit suicide. 

A “star performer” at a hi-tech company, Vos is also a mother, more and more unable to relate to her domestic side with each murder. Every time she comes back, something in her conscience seems to have disappeared, left behind in whatever body she has inhabited.

‘Possessor’ Packs An Existential Punch

Describing mementos of her past is part of the safety protocols implemented to make sure Vos is still herself once she awakens.

It’s during an assessment with Vos’ boss Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) that viewers first lay eyes on the woman’s crimson butterfly. As the protagonist holds it in between her hands, she recognizes it almost immediately. It’s the butterfly she killed and mounted when she was a little girl.

“Then I felt guilty about it,” the assassin says.

“I still feel guilty about it,” she adds.

Despite all precautions, the woman’s empathy is thinning, slowly but surely. The audience is let in on Vos’ innermost violent instincts right from the prologue. Hired to murder a wealthy attorney, Vos attends a glamorous hotel party in the body of Holly Bergman (Gabrielle Graham). One detail changes everything: Vos chooses to stab his victim to death instead of firing the company-provided gun. A split-second choice, leading to a messy, horrific crime scene. The opposite of the so-called “clean job” contract assassins are normally hired to perform.

Things get even more complicated when Vos realizes she’s unable to push Holly to take her own life. Police officers break in and shoot Holly, but it’s now apparent that Vos is losing her grip on her hosts.

Vos And Colin’s Consciousnesses Interact

When she possesses the body of Colin, played by Christopher Abbott, Vos finds herself reckoning with the highest resistance she has ever encountered.

Hired to kill Colin’s girlfriend Ava (Tuppence Middleton) and his powerful father-in-law (Sean Bean), Vos soon understands that her host won’t go down without a fight. At the same time, she is tempted by Colin’s life and finds herself attracted to Ava.

Colin and Vos’ consciousness continuously interact on the psychic plane. After heinously murdering Ava and her father, Vos can’t make Colin commit suicide. At a loss, the assassin is aided by Eddie, her lifeline at the company. He ensures her he will override Colin’s consciousness.

As the recalibration is taking place, Colin and Vos become one, in what is the most upsetting scene of Possessor. Their encounter unleashes a nightmare of practical effects and neon hues, courtesy of the cinematography by Karim Hussain. An increasingly powerful Colin strangles Vos and crushes her skull — a distressingly realistic wax model of Riseborough’s head. He stretches Vos’ face and wears it as a mask à la Michael Myers, accessing her memories in the process.

This leads the man to Vos’ house in the heinous denouement. In an attempt to force Vos to leave his body, Colin threatens to kill her ex-husband Michael (Rossif Sutherland). Possessor lets Vos and her host interact one last time in a twist where she encourages Colin to kill Michael. She also insinuates that Ava and her father’s murders were Colin’s doing, a latent desire he had been burying deep down all along.

The Red Butterfly Returns In The Finale

Colin butchers Michael with a meat cleaver and is in turn killed by Girder, who has possessed the body of Vos’ son, Ira (Gage Graham-Arbuthnot). The mission is over, in an overly violent finale resembling that of a Greek tragedy. The camera stays on the wooden floor, flooded with the blood spilled in the carnage. As crimson as it gets.

Vos can finally wake up and piece together what’s left of her consciousness. By sacrificing her husband and son, the protagonist gets eschews the last shred of empathy she has left. She’s ready to embrace her cold-hearted, apathetic nature, one she has been trying to hide beneath a surface of normalcy and anonymity. She drops all masks in the ending, proving the only body too uncomfortable to possess was that of a mother and wife.

“Poor Michael, I loved him too,” Vos tells Colins in their final exchange.

“But I’m not sure if that was me,” she adds.

Possessor follows a circular narrative structure, making Vos’ cruel awakening all the more jarring when comparing prologue and epilogue. Upon recognizing the red butterfly in the final scene, Vos appears remorseless. Any trace of guilt seems long gone, replaced by an emboldened sense of self. Whose self that is, it’s hard to tell.

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