Possum (2018)

Possum first published by Sight & Sound, November 2018

Review: There is a subgenre of cinema – the ‘muttering man movie’ – in which an extremely alienated, barely articulate male is caught claustrophobically in an environment that reflects his inner states, both concealing and exposing the secrets of a damaged psyche. Key examples include David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977), the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink (1991) and David Cronenberg’s Spider (2002). The latest is Possum – and despite its title also being the name of the monstrous puppet at its centre, the film acknowledges its debt to Cronenberg’s film by giving Possum the form of a massive, grotesquely human-faced spider.


The puppet belongs to Philip (Sean Harris), who carries it everywhere with him in a brown holdall. Philip has just returned to his childhood home – now a dilapidated, barely habitable hovel where the much older Maurice (Alun Armstrong, oozing menace) still resides. As Philip works through the painful history of their relationship, the viewer, too, struggles to work out its precise nature. Something clearly is not right about Philip, with his stiff posture and permanent frown. The abandoned military barracks, desolate moors, bleak, autumnal woods and even his squalid, crumbling house (with its one forbidden room) which again become Philip’s local haunts, are also geographies of his mind, mapped out as a disorienting space where reality and fantasy, present and past, life and death, even day and night, are terribly confused. Meanwhile Michael (Charlie Eales), a schoolboy whom Philip approached and creeped out on the train, has gone missing.

‘Playing possum’ is proverbial for the feigning of death to ensure survival. Philip has come to bury, burn or submerge his puppet, but no matter how many times he tries to rid himself of this freakish burden, it keeps coming back, reifying his never-ending fear, grief and guilt, and pulling all the anxious puppeteer’s strings. For Possum is a creature born of boyhood imagination, and living long past the terms of its natural life, sustained by repression, depression and a deep, dark desire for expression. Doing the circumscribed rounds of his old neighbourhood, Philip also keeps encountering, in shades of the psychological landscapes of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009), a dead fox that returns to life. Philip too is playing possum, shuffling zombie-like through a living death as he resurrects – and perhaps reenacts – a past trauma that can never be fully laid to rest. 

Matthew Holness is best known for his comic contributions to television’s Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace (2004) – but his feature debut is deadly serious in both theme and tone. Like the hand-illustrated notebook where Philip first started giving imaginative form to his feelings as a boy, Possum is an album of unease, as the Radiophonic Workshop’s unsettling score, the filthy set design, editor Tommy Boulding’s jarring spatiotemporal leaps, and Kit Fraser’s canted cinematography and unnerving depth of field, all contribute to the film’s profound sense of the uncanny. With fragments of exposition delivered in whispered half-lines and sly nudges, it never fully resolves its ambiguities, leaving us unsure whether Maurice is really still living in the old house, or merely an unwelcome lingerer in Philip’s burning conscience. What is clear, though, is the long spidery legacy of abuse from which Philip will perhaps never free himself.

Synopsis: Philip returns by train to his childhood home in Fallmarsh, Norwich, nursing a brown holdall. On the way, Philip addresses schoolboy Michael, frightening him off. Philip settles into the run-down home, and retrieves his old notebook, hidden under a floorboard, with its hand-illustrated poem about a child-eating spider named Possum. Philip also warily reconnects with the house’s older resident, Maurice. From their cryptic conversations, we learn that Philip has been fired as a puppeteer for a ‘scandal’, probably involving the terrifying puppet in his holdall, the human-faced spider Possum. Philip tours the woods, moors and abandoned military barracks (where local Youth Cadets once trained), constantly trying to get rid of or destroy Possum – but it keeps showing up again. Maurice gives Philip an old cigarette box containing a picture of Philip’s late parents. There are news reports that Michael has gone missing, and that someone matching Philip’s description is being sought for questioning. Philip has strange visions – of black balloons, smoky fires, a resurrected fox, and an animated Possum pursuing him until he finally submits to it. Philip enters a burnt-out room in the house, where uncle Maurice assaults him again, revealing he abused Youth Cadets too. Philip kills Maurice, and releases Michael from a wooden chest.  

© Anton Bitel