Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Possum (2018)

Following some sort of scandal surrounding one of his shows, puppeteer Philip (Sean Harris) returns to his decaying childhood home and his equally decaying “uncle” Maurice (Alun Armstrong) in the ugly part of the British countryside they never show on TV. It’s never quite clear if he’s going there to confront his past, run away from the present to what will turn out to be his just as horribly fucked-up childhood, or just because it is the only place he knows to run to. In any case, he does seem to plan to destroy his puppet, the titular Possum, a thing that’s as nightmarish as it is because it does indeed come from Philip’s childhood nightmares. Sometimes, Possum seems to have a sinister life all of its own, and it certainly is very difficult to destroy.

I’m not going to go much farther into the plot of Possum, for the only way to really do that in a way doing justice to Matthew Holness’s film’s sequence of chronologically disordered scenes, some of whom may be visions or hallucinations, some nightmares, and some memories turned into nightmares, would be to recap it scene by scene. And once I’m doing that, a reader is simply better off just watching the damn thing herself. Of course, watching Possum is highly recommended anyway, at least if you like (I’d say enjoy, but that’s not a feeling that really has much to do with this one) the more cerebral and mood-driven psychological side of horror cinema.

Holness takes a deep dive into the shadowy places of British culture, letting Philip wander through the bleakest kind of countryside, touched by humankind’s garbage in all the ugliest ways, living in a house that has been decorated in the 70s and left to rot since then – a description also applicable to Maurice – while touching on moral panics of a sort that seems particularly resonant in the UK. The film is oozing an air of wrongness that is clearly influenced by things like the mind-bogglingly creepy Public Information Films of the 70s and other typical hallmarks of the Weird UK of that time. Holness never just copies his influences, though, but channels them into a film very much his own.

Much of Possum truly has the quality of a nightmare, or rather, of being trapped in the head of the heavily traumatized man that is Philip – and his is not the sexy or romantic kind of trauma that makes for a nice dramatic backstory, but the shitty one that feels way too real even if it is, like here, expressed through the Weird and the (horribly) fantastic. For this isn’t one of those films that just pours out nightmare images and stops there; rather, Holness is very careful in the choice of his visual metaphors and pictures. Everything we see has a very concrete meaning that will indeed make sense in the end.

Which, I believe, is actually the film’s only true weakness, at least for my tastes: in the end, there’s really no ambiguity at all left concerning Philip’s past and present, with everything we have experienced clearly applicable to what happened to him, and all questions answered. Clear answers aren’t really what I personally come to the Weird and fantastic cinema as a whole to, so it must say something about Holness’s skill here that I still think that Possum is a deeply disquieting masterpiece of a movie, acted and directed with deep intelligence and empathy.

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